Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic came loaded with an all-German program at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night that had a train of thought. They started out with some brazen modernisms from this century, doubled back to the well-worn, comfortable affirmations of Johannes Brahms and concluded with what were once considered to be brazen modernisms from Richard Strauss.
The present-day composer was Matthias Pintscher, 45, who is currently in charge of Paris' Ensemble InterContemporain and was a Green Umbrella guest conductor here in 2014. His "towards Osiris" from 2005 — a West Coast premiere — purports to have an operating method, starting with, in the composer's words, "a totality of sound," which is then taken apart and reassembled in a different combination.
Be that as it may, what we heard was a riveting display of shimmering, seething orchestral color with a huge collection of percussion instruments rattling, cobbling and bonging away in the Disney Hall acoustic. The whole compact metamorphosis took place in only a little over seven minutes, not overstaying its welcome in the least.
Next, the Brahms Violin Concerto served as a synergistic vehicle for violinist Joshua Bell, whose new CD for Sony happens to be titled "For the Love of Brahms." Yet for all of Bell's extroverted physical crouching and bending — even more so than usual for him — and Dudamel's alert accompaniment, this was not an emotionally involving performance. Score a few points for enterprise, though. The rambling first movement cadenza, which tried to develop a few themes from the piece, was credited to Bell.
The post-intermission portion contained a pair of Strauss tone poems, "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," both the work of a young man with a highly developed orchestral technique that was startling for its time. One could even apply the operating method of Pintscher's piece here, with Pintscher taking lavishly orchestrated German tonality apart at the beginning of the program and "Till" patching its scattered pieces back together into a tonal framework at the end.
In 2013, Dudamel recorded "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" with the Berlin Philharmonic for an all-Strauss CD that got a mixed response. (The Gramophone's Philip Clark trashed the performance of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" on the CD, and after noting that Dudamel was then being considered as a candidate to succeed Simon Rattle in Berlin, he added a classic tag line: "I hope he interviews well.")
Well, no, the recording wasn't all that bad; it was just OK — and no harm was done, for Dudamel will be touring with the Berlin in summer 2017. But Dudamel's performances with his Los Angeles orchestra Thursday were a whole other story.
"Don Juan" was full of brash, even rowdy energy and thrust, the fast portions mercurial, the love music luxuriant, better than the Berlin performance in every which way. So was "Till Eulenspiegel," which was faster, more boisterous, more mischievous and more fully characterized, the escapades painted in lightning strokes, and the Philharmonic whizzed along at Dudamel's tempos without a care. This was Dudamel at his tempestuous best, and it made me wish that it was these performances, not the Berliners', that were captured on the recording.
Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel and Joshua Bell; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $65 - $201; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.