A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Conductor Edo de Waart and pianist Joyce Yang / photo courtesy of LA Phil

The Dutch conductor Edo de Waart is visiting LA this weekend leading the LA Phil in three varied works, “The Five Elements” by Chinese composer Qigang Chen, Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 37, and Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben.”

On Saturday, the concert opened with the quietest shimmers in the Chen to an especially noisy audience, including a few latecomers who hadn’t found their seats yet. And even though each of the movements in this 10-minute work was only two minutes long, many in the audience used the brief breaks to cough.

The work by Chen is like a modern impressionistic musical painting that relies almost exclusively on sonic rather than melodic devices to suggest its inspiration, in particular, focusing on the percussive nature of all the instruments in the orchestra, including the piano and harp. Even the writing for the strings is percussive with frequent pizzicatos and different ways the bows are used against the strings. There are very few melodic lines, perhaps most notable is a brief melody in the second to last movement (“Earth”) that was played very richly, as always, by principal violist Carrie Dennis.

But, as with many modern pieces that one can never walk away humming, 10 minutes was the perfect duration for the Chen.

After a brief pause during which the piano was rolled out and the orchestra downsized,  de Waart appeared back on stage with the soloist, the 24-year-old Korean pianist and 2005 Van Cliburn Silver Medal Winner, Joyce Yang. Together they performed a very Mozartian rendition of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, which is not the warhorse suggested by the Fourth Piano Concerto and realized in the Fifth, but rather Beethoven’s transition concerto between those of Mozart and his last two on which he put his own distinctive stamp.

Yang’s playing was exceptional for its clarity and accuracy. She effortlessly caressed each note out of the keyboard in a somewhat restrained but beautiful performance. And  de Waart provided the perfect accompaniment, never allowing the orchestra to overshadow Yang, but truly accompanying the piano part. In fact, the overall restrained performance was indicated by de Waart’s decision not to use a baton in the first two movements — though he nevertheless managed to deftly single out individual instruments or sections.

At the conclusion, the audience rose to its feet in appreciation of the two heroes, de Waart and Yang.

After intermission, the concert concluded with “A Hero’s Life” by Richard Strauss, the last of the composer’s large tone poems, composed exactly 100 years before Chen’s “The Five Elements.” Notes written by Strauss indicated that “Ein Heldenleben” was intended to be a modern (at the time) version of Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony,” both in the key of E flat and both in similar (extended sonata) form. The fact that “Ein Heldenleben” essentially closes out the romantic 19th century, which musically could be said to have begun with the Beethoven “Eroica,” is perhaps poignant.

De Waart provided a very balanced rendering of the Strauss, allowing the LA Phil to blast “The Hero’s Battlefield” with it’s complement of small military drum, tenor drum, and bass drum, announced by three offstage trumpets, while also providing nuanced transitions between the movements by the tubas.

The performance showcased the outstanding playing of Concertmaster Martin Chalifour in the extended violin solo in “The Hero’s Companion,” of principal horn player William Lane, and of English horn player Carolyn Hove.

All in all, with Yang, de Waart, the members of the LA Phil, and three great works of music, there were heroes a plenty in Disney Hall.

The concert repeats today (Sunday, March 14) at 2 p.m.