The Los Angeles Philharmonic understandably made much of the connection between George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel prior to Thursday night’s program of their music at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The famous anecdote in which American Gershwin asked Frenchman Ravel for composition lessons — whereupon learning of Gershwin’s vast earnings, Ravel suggested the opposite — was trotted out again. That each influenced the other is also noted often, and they both died in the same year, 1937. Moreover, both composers are good for the box office, as the nearly full house indicated.
Yet what made this particular program so interesting is the canny way it introduced more cross-references between the composers and the performers. Here was Lionel Bringuier, who launched his career in Los Angeles at the tender age of 20, returning to the orchestra with which he rose steadily from assistant to resident conductor. In other words, a Frenchman in America, in tandem with a French pianist, Hélène Grimaud, playing a French piano concerto written under the influence of American jazz.
Later in the night, Bringuier turned the tables by leading a piece by an American composer called “An American in Paris.”
But first came an excursion to Cuba — Gershwin’s wonderful, hip-shaking, still-not-often-played “Cuban Overture” — written at a time when you could travel freely to that country.
Although it was great to hear the piece in the great indoors for a change, the tempos in the rumba episodes were way too fast to establish the clavé rhythm that gives the piece its groove. The orchestra had to scramble to stay on track in certain rushed passages, and the Afro-Cuban percussion instruments could barely be heard over the ensemble anyway. (Gershwin suggested placing them in front of the conductor’s stand, which certainly would have righted the balance.) Bringuier did demonstrate a good feeling for the sweep of the languorous middle section.
Gershwin & Ravel
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $68-$229 (subject to change)
Info: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com
The Ravel Piano Concerto in G got off to a fine, fast, together start, with Bringuier establishing an appealingly light, crisp, Gallic tone with a reduced band of players. After some initial soul-searching rubatos, Grimaud continued with a clear, crystalline touch that could also turn tough and toccata-like, with brilliantly precise trills and a finale with dizzyingly fast playing of Ravel’s revved-up idea of stride jazz piano.
With Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,” Bringuier further flashed his Ravel credentials. (He recorded all of Ravel’s orchestral music while in Switzerland, where he was music director of Tonhalle Orchester Zurich.) The conductor took some of the waltzes at daringly slow tempos that dripped with sensuality while exulting in the swaying swing of the opening waltz.
Bringuier had the help of the L.A. Phil’s jazz-minded soloists pouring on the bluesy slurring in Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” Three saxophonists were forwardly balanced in the central homesick blues section that gave it a Paul Whiteman-like period sound. Elsewhere, Bringuier made infectiously jaunty work of Gershwin’s fast walks through the French capital.