The crowd at the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Heroic Beethoven" program Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl can be forgiven for thinking the heroic meant them, enduring an arctic chill to hear the Third Piano Concerto and Third Symphony. Crazy as this must seem to New Yorkers who, this month, are fanning themselves silly at sweltering outdoor concerts held in record heat, our orchestra has been praying for a heat wave. Beethoven usually draws more than Tuesday's 6,236.
I'm willing to do my part, lighting incense for Ra, Surya, Shamash, Sol Invictus or any other solar deity on duty this week if that will help encourage audiences come Thursday, when the program repeats. Be there to hear Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado lead a startlingly percussive account of the "Eroica" Symphony or check out the Paris' hottest young pianist, David Fray -- both making their Hollywood Bowl debuts.
Although this was their first time performing together, the 29-year-old pianist and 32-year-old conductor have much in common. Fray comes from the south of France, just across the Pyrenees from the Spanish border; Heras-Casado is a Grenadian, from Southern Spain. Fray has been closely associated with Bach and some have begun comparing him to Glenn Gould for his highly involved style of playing. Heras-Casado has worked in the early music movement.
But both are also cosmopolitan modernists who have been championed, in particular, by Pierre Boulez. Heras-Casado made his L.A. Philharmonic debut two seasons ago by conducting Stockhausen at a Green Umbrella Concert. Fray's first big burst of international attention was a recording pairing solo piano works by Bach and Boulez.
This was Fray's first local appearance. He is tall, slender and glamorous in a manner Parisians have perfected. He has long hair and is married to an actress who also happens to be conductor Riccardo Muti's daughter. And he has already gotten the royal video treatment from Bruno Monsaigneon, cinematic chronicler of Gould, Sviatislav Richter and other notable musicians.
The Bowl was probably not the best place for a first encounter with Fray. It was hard, through amplification, to gauge his tone, but there could be no mistaking the crystalline clarity of his technique. He has a percussive touch that is also delicate, and the slow movement of the concerto was almost Ravelian in its magical lyricism.
At least what could be heard of it was. Fray treated the big Bowl as an intimate chamber. The video cameras zoomed in on his fingers, but the amplification could only do so much with his extreme dynamic range, and so the effect was bizarre – big hands on the screen, a sometimes teeny-weeny sound through loudspeakers. The audience (muffled in blankets) was admirably quiet and attentive (or maybe just frozen solid), but that only made the environmental backdrop of distant traffic all the more noticeable.
Still, you could tell a player of rare sensitivity and character was at work. He wasn't exactly heroic in the fast movements, but there was real drama (I couldn't tell about power), precision and flair. In the Finale, Fray exhibited a playfulness and a dancing, bright, silvery sound.
It was enough to want him back, ideally at Disney, as soon as possible.
Heras-Casado seemed an affable enough accompanist for Fray, but it was in the "Eroica" that he came to his own. Here, he favored a large orchestra which he then led with a combination of period-practice attention to sharp-edged attacks and transparent textures and a Modernist's love of exciting rhythm and dissonance. The result was a wonderfully new kind of Stravinskyan Beethoven. Indeed, there were times when this began to sound like an "Eroica Rite of Spring."
There is a famous moment at the end of the first movement's development section where Beethoven jumps the gun on the recapitulation and two chords collide in a suspenseful dissonance. But, having become so familiar, the passage rarely shocks anymore. Under Heras-Casado, I found it did, again, sounding like an outtake of the "Rite." And so, too, did the intricate metrics of the Scherzo.
Watching Heras-Casado on the video screen, you might find a superficial resemblance to Gustavo Dudamel or Simon Rattle – the curly hair, of course, and the intensity of facial gestures. But his stick technique is closer to Boulez, which means no stick at all. Instead, he uses his hands with a choreographic clarity.
The proof was ultimately in the playing. Rehearsal time in the summer is not generous, but the orchestra's tight ensemble and steely attacks sounded as if it were. The good news is that in Heras-Casado's case, he will be back at Disney in November conducting the L.A. Philharmonic in Debussy, Takemitsu and real Stravinsky.