The one purely orchestral concert of this week’s all-over-the-map “Americas & Americans” festival at the Hollywood Bowl was Thursday night. This was Gustavo Dudamel’s opportunity to make a big statement with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He did.
The theme was fascinatingly Pan-American and focused around Aaron Copland’s heroic Third Symphony, which had its premiere in 1946 and encompassed the mood of a country sobered by war but celebratory of victory. For the program’s South American half, which began the evening, Dudamel turned to works by Latin American composers who were influenced by Copland. In fact, Copland owed a debt to Latin American music. It might sound dopey to say so, but the three generations of composers from two continents on Thursday’s program really did seem a happy, extended family, stylistically speaking.
Dudamel began with a rarity for us if not for him. Venezuelan composer Juan Carlos Núñez’s Toccata Sinfónica No. 1 was written in 1971 to celebrate the founding of the great Venezuelan music education program El Sistema. A sparkling five-minute piece, it has become something of an anthem over the years for the many Sistema youth orchestras throughout Venezuela.
But another toccata mattered more Thursday — the driving last movement of Alberto Ginastera’s improbably neglected First Piano Concerto, which received a sensational performance with Sergio Tiempo as the soloist. The improbability of the concerto’s neglect is because the work has had stellar and persuasive champions, including the pianist Martha Argerich and the rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The band’s 1973 album “Brain Salad Surgery” included a wailing and heavily metallic arrangement of the toccata reputed to have blown the Argentine composer’s mind.
The Copland influence in the concerto, written in 1961, is actually more from the American composer’s later, austere 12-tone period. But Ginastera’s achievement here is to combine Modernism with recognizably Argentine rhythms. The solo piano part is, of course, highly dynamic but also exquisitely colored. Tiempo — who like Dudamel is Venezuelan and who has a resplendent tone — proved the work’s ideal champion.
The most interesting movement is the mysterious Scherzo, which offered splendidly eerie mood music for the Bowl. A musical evocation of what? Magical realism maybe, whatever that is. But creepy crawly sonorities made me think of bats and other nocturnal wildlife. A rattler couldn’t choose a better soundtrack for slithering down the Bowl aisles. Nor could ushers find better music for clobbering a snake than Ginastera’s concluding Toccata.
Tiempo and Dudamel did not underestimate the audience and won over a crowd that can sometimes be inattentive. Looking around I saw nothing but people entranced. The applause was enthusiastic. I doubt that few would have objected had Tiempo taken a Ginastera solo encore.
The Copland Third is a problem piece, and here the Bowl’s limited rehearsal schedule could be expected to make it only more of one. Copland wrote a victory symphony, and he ended it with his “Fanfare for the Common Man” theme bolstered to represent epic grandeur. It is as if Copland were saying that the common man conquered the Nazis and here is optimistic music for urging America on to further greatness.
Despite a work full of eloquent beauty, the grandiloquence of that ending can seem overdone for a composer normally cool, and few major conductors have taken the work to their hearts. Leonard Bernstein struggled with it for years, but his late 1985 recording reveals a magnificence no one else ever achieved.
That was the magnificence Dudamel was after, and he found it in a broadly effective account of the sumptuously rich first movement and his complexly incisive attack on the Scherzo, where there is a hint of Latin flavor (Copland wrote part of the score in Mexico). But Dudamel had trouble holding the slow movement, which he made heavy, and the Finale together.
No doubt this was because of a lack of time to work much out with the orchestra, which sounded almost as if it were reading through parts of the score for only the first or second time. Still, the L.A. Phil gets the essence of Copland as few other orchestras do, and so it seems does Dudamel.
There were moments that took my breath away. Some were small ones, such as near the end of the slow movement where concertmaster Martin Chalifour played a violin solo, made of harmonics, with an uninflected tone that felt like a pure distillation of the Copland sound. The orchestra’s pianist, Joanne Pearce Martin, was the brilliant, glittery icing on the cake of the enticing Scherzo.
And Dudamel learned an important lesson from Bernstein, which is not to fight the Third’s loftiness. There were no fireworks this evening, yet the fanfare had the sound and effect of them.
A fully fleshed-out Copland Third by Dudamel and L.A. Phil in Walt Disney Concert Hall could be a revelation. I hope it happens someday.