Top U.S. Orchestras 2009: New Conducting Prodigy Makes Angelenos Swoon for Martha Argerich (2009.03.12)
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 from Berstein Century (w/ NY Philharmonic)
MP3: I. Moderato
MP3: II. Allegretto
MP3: III. Largo
Fresh from what was hailed as “back-to-back triumphs of a truly historic nature” in San Fran, pianist Martha Argerich didn’t miss a beat. In San Fran, her prelude was Gyorgi Ligeti’s ultra-haunting Requiem…in L.A.’s Disney Hall, that whizzing exercise in Belle Epoque decadence – Ravel’s La Valse - lubed us up for some Martha-Lovin’.
For that, thank Yannick Nézet-Séguin. This 34-year-old conductor’s Los Angeles debut destines him for conquering.(Boston had him first. Cleveland’s getting him next, and I’m fixing to catch him when he debuts at the Met.) If he stays sharp, he’ll prove the Kurt Masur or Charles Dutoit of our era.
He threw the orchestra into Ravel’s Valse with all the French sass they could muster. Never have I seen a conductor employ deeper knee bends (nor one sporting a faux-hawk onstage). From the violins he drew forth a feminine ache that mimicked the hesitation step of the waltz. Yannick took great care to coax us into the climax, doing so without score. He felt the piece as a true Frenchman (he’s fresh from the Orchestre de Toulouse). Yet, hurtling toward the finale, he tore the orchestra from flute flirtations and harpstroke swirls with a full guttural roar from his own lips. The French horns, once muted, now blared loud and clear with a livid bestial flare. Angelenos got to their feet like B-more scenesters, hoots and howls all around.
This act was like Johnny Rotten’s “God Save the Queen” delivered on boat in the sacred Thames. My companion whispered: “Do they always do that?” No, they don’t.
Close on its heels came Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. From the first percussive snap, this Martha-Yannick tag-team delivered a real wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. (The ending came on so fast that the crowd demanded encore before intermission).
The Concerto in G, is a masterstroke of seduction that Martha has writ her name all over. Her salt-and-pepper mane, untamed by band or gem, flipped unnoticed over her shoulders. She pours over the keys without a hint of the self-conscious. No prodigy somnambulist, she really listens to the shape of the orchestral sound and attends the birth of music like a Doula. With such help, Yannick brought out something shattering and bold. The reeds actually outjazzed their brass brothers — moaning better than a sax. Suspense reigned supreme as one harpist plucked with one hand and wandered with the other like an orb spider dangling from the wooden ceiling of Disney that flows like cloth banners.
As Martha molds an effortless Adagio, Yannick stands by with folded hands, watching her every strike, like a proud groom waits at an alter. In a twinkle, he’s back to leading the lone flute to its heights in the nest of soft strings (that’s Disney Hall’s triumph – that it lifts high woodwinds and spreads the sound like dandelion on the wind). Seamless mutability shines diamond-like as the murkier passages intensify and astound. Martha digs deep at the piano for but a second before gently toggling the keys – with the delicate, yet rapid-fire flap of a hummingbird (in L.A. you can find real live humming birds in the blossoms on Figueroa Street).
The Presto crowed a crowning joy…never have I heard peppier clarinet. Spot-on entrances. Woodwinds so agile that even the bassoons ran and gamboled like foals – around an ever-poised Martha.
When the applause roars, Argerich points out who in the orchestra merits applause.
Two chairs are brought out. My companion, hot for Mr.Nézet-Séguin, breathlessly tugs my elbow: “He’s going to turn her pages!” In fact, he actually sits down next to Martha — after the foible of who sits first — and trounces around with her in a four-hand arrangement from Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite. And this cocksure conductor, sitting at her side, smiles like a schoolboy. She, beaming and amused, handles the raindrop strikes at the high end of the keys.
For the finish, Yannick drove out the thunderously likeable Shostakovich #5. Sans score, battling the best conductors, Yannick – with the energy of a triple-crown jockey -convinced me that the Los Angeles Philharmonic trumps Chicago…but doesn’t beat Cleveland…for now.
It might be the hall, but here’s L.A.’s trump card: the strength of the individual voices of the orchestra – like the lone flutist – gently wheeling over the oboe and orchestra in the opening of the 5th. Yannick pulls the violas by drawing a hand to his heart just before the piano lurches into play. The man conducts with his eyebrows and shows he can easily rein the players into a terrifying unison.
The second movement flashes out with slicing cellos and the concertmaster, Martin Chalifour, offers the mincing dance. Woodwinds duel with the strings, crushed underfoot by the cymbals and trumpet for a stately, Russian nostalgia.
The Largo, which made Russia weep at its debut, offered glimmers of greatness. The strings, at once looming and lifting, hushed down tightly into the solo oboe. There’s some throat-slitting slash from the basses as the strings crawl up the octave.
We rush into the finale with tympani and trumpets loud. To tame them down, Yannick makes the o.k. sign with his forefinger and thumb. Harp collides with a light martial theme from the drums. The trumpets unfurl a little archangeldom. And strings bring us back to the opening lines, before the cymbals and tympani take turns to finish us off, the triangle playing a Tchiakovsky-like Cupid in the background.
I think Yannick has a little growing to do when it comes to mastery of Shostakovich, but I’ll await him at the port of Baltimore with open arms. When will the BSO extend an invitation?
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