In the '70s, the rock band Yes opened concerts with an amped-up recording of the lovely Lullaby and rousing Finale of Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite. For many listeners, the experience became a memorable introduction to a modern master's music.
But the composer's complete 1910 score to "The Firebird," which lasts about 45 minutes, requires more stamina from listeners as well as a conductor with enough seductive storytelling gifts to keep this enchanted bird aloft.
On Sunday afternoon, Pablo Heras-Casado, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a riveting performance, was that conductor. His program also included Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso" and Piano Concerto in G, with Spanish pianist Javier Perianes subbing for an indisposed Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
Heras-Casado, who made his debut with the orchestra in 2009, has proved one of the most versatile conductors of his generation. The 38-year-old from Granada in southern Spain studied with early music specialist Christopher Hogwood, as well as Pierre Boulez. In 2008, he led the L.A. Phil New Music Group at a Green Umbrella concert in works by Ligeti and Stockhausen. He's currently principal conductor of New York's Orchestra of St. Luke's.
Remarkably, considering Stravinsky composed "Firebird" in collaboration with choreographer Michel Fokine for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Heras-Casado sustained the narrative through slow, quiet sections that otherwise would have had dancers to help carry them. Seamlessly navigating the work's many transitions, the conductor's conjuring of orchestral mood and color was so pictorially communicative, one could almost see Prince Ivan encountering the enchanting Firebird for the first time.
The ballet's story remains modern: It's essentially about the downfall of an ogre-like evil guy who doesn't respect women. From the opening rumbling in the basses, effectively projected in the sensitive Disney Hall acoustics, the score's suspense never let up. Under Heras-Casado, the Phil's impeccable ensemble delivered such a powerful account of the "Infernal Dance" that some members of the audience started to applaud.
Heras-Casado's theatrical side emerged in his use of delightful antiphonal effects — a trumpet playing offstage led into glissandi on three harps. At another point, a brass quartet performed in the organ loft. And adding to the thrilling brass-driven Finale, the conductor placed a row of horns in the balcony. With such drama, who needed dancers?
Perianes, who made his L.A. Phil debut with this series of concerts, is reportedly an effective advocate for classical music in Spain, where he has an audience of 2 million on the nation's most popular classical music radio program. In the Ravel concerto, he was rhythmically crisp in the opening movement, poised in the lyrical central Adagio and nimble in the concluding Presto.
As an encore, Perianes gave a thrilling account of Manuel de Falla's piano arrangement of the "Ritual Fire Dance" from his ballet, "El amor brujo" (The Bewitched Love), buoyantly conveying its Andalusian Gypsy flavor.
The program began with a brash reading of the orchestral arrangement of Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso," from his piano suite, "Miroirs," which turned out to be an anomaly, given the more subtle music-making to come.