When Gidon Kremer has a farsighted cause, it is wise to pay close attention. Over an uncompromising half-century career, the Latvian violinist and one of the last of the legendary artists to come out of the Soviet Russia music education system has been single-handedly responsible for bringing attention in the West to Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina.
Kremer championed Philip Glass’ initially maligned Violin Concerto in the 1980s and finally shamed the classical concert world into taking the composer seriously. Tango master Astor Piazzolla got a similar lift thanks to the violinist. One of the first famed artists to speak out against Putin’s political and artistic repression, Kremer organized a protest concert in Berlin four years ago that included Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim. For years Kremer also has led the cause against the commercialization of classical music.
After more than a decade’s absence from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kremer returned to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night, using his star power this time to promote two of his latest and most worthy causes: the neglected Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, whose music has begun to enjoy a revelatory revival, and today’s most promising young conductor, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.
Angelenos don’t need to be told about Mirga mania. We have been on a first-name basis with her for a while, watching her rapid rise through the ranks of the L.A. Phil, from Dudamel fellow to associate conductor. At 30, she is now starting her second season as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. England is already besotted. This was her first time back since she officially left the L.A. Phil fold last season. (She canceled a Hollywood Bowl date in the summer because of illness.)
Word of her success in L.A. traveled eastward, of course, and she was also music director of a small opera company in Salzburg, Austria, but it was Kremer’s invitation to perform with his exceptional chamber orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, that helped to get the word around big time. A Kremerata Baltica set of Weinberg works released by ECM in January includes Grazinyte-Tyla conducting the composer’s arresting Chamber Symphony No. 4. It is her first (and thus far only) major recording. Time is running out if the record companies hope to top this, at least in my estimation, as recording of the year.
With that build-up, Thursday’s concert, with repeats only Friday night and Saturday afternoon, was yet one more highlight of a highlight-overloaded L.A. Phil year. For one thing it was the most substantial program Grazinyte-Tyla has conducted here. For another, it offered the orchestra’s first performance of Weinberg’s 1959 Violin Concerto, a score as fine as any concerto by Shostakovich, who was a mentor of Weinberg. And for yet another, the program — which began with Messiaen’s beaming “Un Sourire” and ended with Mahler’s beaming Fourth Symphony — showed that there is more to Mirga than ever.
Chicly dressed with her hair braided and tied back, wearing flats, she looked tiny on the podium, which only made her electrifying command of the large orchestra seem all the more amazing. In “Un Sourire” (“A Smile”) — Messiaen’s tribute at the end of his life to Mozart’s at the end of his (nicely picking up from Dudamel’s recent focus on Mozart’s last year) — she pivoted from the score’s alternation of blissful stillness to bird-like chirping with such sudden alacrity it was as if she turned a light switch.
This vibrancy and ability for hairpin mood swings make Grazinyte-Tyla an almost alarmingly persuasive Weinberg conductor. The highly prolific composer (26 symphonies, 65 film scores, plus operas, scads of chamber music, etc.) fled Nazi-occupied Poland at 20 to study in Moscow and is not easy to pigeonhole. The Violin Concerto is modernist but with all kinds of other influences. It’s not exactly dissident music but far from Soviet populism. It’s angry and spiritual and hopeful and — the adverbs, for this and the opposite, could keep coming.
What it asks for is penetration beneath the surface notes, and that is what Kremer offers. He turned 70 this year (which can be over the hill for the average violinist) and he may no longer have the gleaming tone he once had. But he more than makes up for that with an intensity and command that makes him compulsively listenable. The violinist, moreover, led his young conductor profoundly into score, while she gave him youth.
Mahler’s Fourth is a greatly emotional symphonist at his most gracious and sunniest. Grazinyte-Tyla, conducting with such the-world-is-her-oyster vivacity that the orchestra members appeared newly riveted by her, was happy to milk the score for all it is worth. She could go happily and irresistibly over the top. Occasionally she was so extravagant in her gestures that players had trouble keeping up with her.
In this she is in good company. Leonard Bernstein, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Dudamel all went overboard at first with the Fourth, probing it for hidden clues to a composer uniquely capable of expressing symphonic angst and exultation. Grazinyte-Tyla’s way with the slow movement, for instance, was unworkably slow, but stunning nonetheless.
Mahler ends with an angelic song, conventionally sung by a soprano. Bernstein in his later years controversially used a boy soprano. At a recent performance in Birmingham, Grazinyte-Tyla upped the innocence ante with three boys. At Disney, she went back to using a regular opera singer. No matter. With Janai Brugger, standing in the orchestra and not far from the harp in the center, heaven was in the air. And Mirga, its monarch.
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Mirga and the L.A. Phil
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $60 - $194
Info: (213) 850-2000, www.laphil.com