Music review: Dudamel premieres Chapela electric cello concerto

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The Yamaha Silent Cello, which Johannes Moser played to premiere Enrico Chapela’s electric cello concerto, “Magnetar,” at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night, is an elegant contraption. It has no body, just a bridge (with an electric pickup), fingerboard and tailpiece. Only silent if you use headphones, it is meant to rock when, as here, it’s plugged into an electric guitar amplifier.


Moser is known to be an elegant cellist in standard repertory playing a standard cello. But he was not refined Thursday. Chapela’s concerto, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, wants to be raunchy, orchestral heavy metal.

Future musicologists will no doubt attempt to date when symphony audiences lost their uptight edge, and maybe Thursday will be a marker. Young and old -- in suits or T-shirts and jeans, in high heels or sneakers -- smiled, stood and cheered. There was no indication that I could see of shock, outrage or condescension. Delight seemed to pervade a packed house.

This means that either Chapela is doing something very right or very wrong. Audiences have changed, and he has managed to please them. But metalheads can’t be happy about a rebellious subculture co-opted.

Chapela, like many composers of his generation (he was born in 1974 in Mexico City), has many musical sides that he integrates without any apparent sense of conflict. He has played guitar in a heavy metal band. He has studied advanced musical electronics in Paris and applied the uncanny harmonic concepts of the French spectralists to his work. He also retains his connection to more conventional Mexican music.

In 2009, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the premiere of Chapela’s “Li Po,” in which all of the above was thrown into a musical multi-culti kitchen sink that also included spoken word and Latin-tinged Chinese. It was a pretentious mess, but a beguiling one that made many of us want to hear more.

The L.A. Phil wanted more too, and “Magnetar” is the follow-up commission. It is also beguilingly pretentious. Each of the 25-minute concerto’s movements alludes to different aspects of magnetars, which Chapela describes as rare types of pulsars, or neutron stars, that produce the biggest magnetic fields in the universe. Working with his cousin, Esteban Chapela, who programmed the electronics, the composer wanted to magnify musical magnetic fields. But the Chapelas also have a fondness for old-school electronic music and rock as well. So the e-cello was plugged into a pair of electric guitar speakers and amps, and a set of wa-wa petals was also set up for Moser.

For the orchestra part, Chapela was back to his kitchen-sink tricks, which meant lots of percussion and the occasional ‘50s avant-garde sound effects. The piece started with the orchestra members putting down their instruments and rubbing their hands together. When they did play, they produced whooshes of glissandi.

The cello part was fast, furious, rhythmic and not particularly notable until the cadenza at the end of the first movement, which Moser improvised. Here the cello wailed and wa-wa-ed and did things that an electric guitar can do and other things that it can’t do.

The spacey slow movement, in which the cello sounded underwater, also got interesting at the end. A kind of jazziness took over. The cello mimicked a trumpet wa-wa-ing with a mute and a saxophone. I imagined astronauts playing “St. James Infirmary” while on a spacewalk. The last movement was pedal to the metal.

‘Magnetar’ is, in the end, a more conventional, less daring and less remarkable score than “Li Po.” But it was full of –- sorry, metal freaks -– charm. There was more pedal-to-the-metal: the evening began with John Adams’ fanfare, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” Dudamel, who drives a Porsche, went to town.

Dudamel didn’t go to town with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony after intermission, although the Scherzo was fast and had an electric snap that needed no electronics. And the popular symphony -- which was heard at its 1945 Moscow premiere as a huge end-of-the-war Soviet sigh of relief –- did end with a trademark Dudamel bang.

But the performance overall was luminous, not weighty. In the slow movement, the sweet and sour strings, colored by kaleidoscopic wind and harp and piano sonorities, seemed to open up into a vast sonic space. Here the L.A. Phil produced a musical magnetic field, evoking the vastness of the universe that not even Chapela’s electronic or spectral wizardry could match.

[For the record, 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Phil’s performance of the Chapela electric cello concerto was recorded for an upcoming iTunes download. The performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was recorded for iTunes.]


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-- Mark Swed

Photos, from top: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night.

Johannes Moser with his electric cello. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.