A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

On Sunday afternoon, LA Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel led the orchestra in three works, Young Apollo, Op. 16, by Benjamin Britten, Apollo by Stravinsky and the Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, by Shostakovich.

Dudamel opened the concert with the short (8-minute) piece by Britten for small string orchestra, piano and string quartet. Britten withdrew the work after its first and only performance in his lifetime (in 1939), and it wasn’t performed again until 1979. The Britten obviously fit nicely with the Stravinsky ballet, both thematically and in its use of a chamber string orchestra, and it gave LA Phil keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin a chance to shine in the spotlight, along with the principal string players.

For the Stravinsky, Dudamel staged a minimalist version of the ballet with the four dancers, Roberto Bolle as Apollo, and Hee Seo, Devon Teuscher and Stella Abrera as the three muses. The dancing was fluid and graceful, and the choreography by George Balanchine perfectly highlighted the rhythmic patterns of the composition. Because the dancers had to dance on the wooden floor behind the orchestra where the bench seats normally are, and because Stravinsky’s score is so muted, the audience, at least near the stage, could hear the ballerinas’ shoes on the floor. But that was a small distraction in a beautiful depiction of Stravinsky’s ethereal score.

Stravinsky’s score, for chamber string orchestra, is a stark contrast with his more famous ballet scores for large orchestra, such as The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. But, although Stravinsky is best known for those large-scale ballets, he also wrote extensively for chamber-size orchestras. The music, however, is no less astounding. As raucous as The Rite of Spring is, the music in Apollo is delicate. The strings of the LA Phil dazzled with their ability to play as light as air. Dudamel, ever the modest conductor, had the lights down on the orchestra and the spotlight on the dancers.

The concert closed with Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. It may have been coincidence but the main theme of the first movement bears a structural similarity to the main theme of Stravinsky’s Apollo.

Let’s face it — every performance by Dudamel and the LA Phil is memorable. One can quibble with his interpretations at times, but the music making is always of the highest caliber. However, every now and then, even amidst all the wonderful music, Dudamel and the Phil offer up an especially inspiring performance, and the Shostakovich was one.

Dudamel so mesmerized the audience that there was hardly a cough during the quieter moments. And some moments, for example, the end of the first movement or much of the second movement, were so quiet that one could have literally heard a pin drop.

Some conductors tend to take liberties with the tempos, especially in the final bars of the last movement. However, Dudamel’s tempos were perfect. And the orchestra responded by playing superbly. The Phil is clearly Dudamel’s orchestra: the musicians play for him like no other conductor, and he clearly appreciates them.

Dudamel and the LA Phil’s performance of this popular Shostakovich symphony was a revelation. It’s a true artist who can make something so familiar sound so new and fresh. And he’s ours.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.