Los Angeles is fortunate to have in our midst at least two internationally recognized conductors, Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the LA Phil, and James Conlon, music director of the LA Opera.
The LA Phil is also fortunate to get Conlon to walk across the street from his usual home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to conduct the LA Phil in Disney Hall, which he did this past weekend in a series of concerts featuring three significant works: the Sinfonia da requiem, Op. 20 by Benjamin Britten; the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 by Sergei Prokofiev, with Yuja Wang as soloist; and the Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 by Antonín Dvořák.
On Nov. 5, when Conlon walked onto the stage, he spoke briefly, and very rapidly, to the audience, as he is wont to do, mostly about the two bookend pieces on the concert—the Britten and the Dvořák— describing how they both move from the serious, but not necessarily sad, key of D minor, to the joyful key of D major, referencing Mozart’s contrasting D minor Piano Concerto and D major symphonies (e.g., the Prague).
Then Conlon launched into the Britten. Britten was just 26 years old when he wrote the Sinfonia da requiem, and it’s little surprise that Conlon selected to perform something by the composer as Conlon is in the midst of a three-year homage to Britten, which includes performances of all the operas and orchestral and choral works and culminates in 2013, the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Conlon’s performance of Britten’s largest purely orchestral work — with its serious D minor first movement, described by Britten as a “slow, marching lament,” contrasted with the “final resolution” of the last movement in D major — was deeply felt and moving and effectively conveyed the composer’s sentiments.
The first half of the concert concluded with Prokofiev’s most often performed piano concerto. The Concerto No. 3 opens with a deceptively simple andante played by the first clarinet in 4/4 time and marked dolce by the composer, which seduces the listener, but then very soon an allegro section is introduced by the strings which accelerates until the piano breaks through in an energetic staccato burst which sets the tone for the remainder of the work. It is apparent from the first entrance of the piano that this is a work to be performed by a young person. After all, Prokofiev was only 26 when he began composing the work, which he himself premiered at the age of 30.
On Saturday night, 24-year-old Yuja Wang’s electrifying piano playing showed hints of the young Martha Argerich, who was famous for her performances of the concerto, and signaled that Wang is her heir apparent. Although the tempo was Wang’s, Conlon was clearly the director. And he’s got a lot of experience in that role, not only as an operatic conductor, but also as the conductor in residence for the Van Cliburn competition in Fort Worth where he accompanies the contestants in their chosen concertos. So he knows how to accompany young piano virtuosos.
But the evening belonged to Wang whose performance literally and figuratively took the breath out of the audience. Her command of the instrument was almost superhuman, her fingers dancing across the keyboard with power combined with grace. I wondered if Lang Lang, who performs a solo recital tonight in Disney Hall, was in the audience and, if so, whether he felt like catching the first plane out of town.
At the rousing conclusion of the concerto, the audience rose to its feet, and, after only the third curtain call, Wang performed an encore, the equally dizzying Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka composed by Johann Strauss and arranged by Cziffra. Although this piece, too, was designed to show off her prowess, it would have been nice if she had chosen something perhaps more lyrical to show her range. No matter. Her goal last night was to dazzle, and dazzle she did.
Conlon concluded the concert with an equally deeply felt performance of the Dvořák Symphony No. 7. Although the LA Phil was without several of its first chair musicians (e.g., Martin Chalifour, Carrie Dennis, Ariana Ghez, and Joseph Pereira), the orchestra still performed wonderfully, although not without some problems. For example, there was a noticeable glitch by the horns in the first movement, but all was forgiven after the flawless solo playing in the second movement. Truth be told, however, it would be difficult not to like a performance of this great symphony by a world-class orchestra in Disney Hall.
The concert repeats this afternoon at 2 p.m.