For the second time in a little more than two weeks, an ailing conductor had to be replaced for a concert with the LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Two weeks ago, it was Miguel Harth-Bedoya who was replaced with Jonathon Heyward. On Saturday night, it was Michael Tilson-Thomas replacing Zubin Mehta who had shoulder surgery. And, like the concerts two weeks ago, the program was changed slightly. Mehta had originally programmed the Bruckner Symphony No. 9 in D minor, which was changed to the Symphony No. 7 in E major. The other work on the program was the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 with the exciting Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili.
Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto is somewhat oddly scored with clarinets instead of oboes and no timpani. Tilson-Thomas used a Mozart-sized orchestra on Saturday night, which, along with the scoring, gives the piece more of a chamber music feel. And Buniatishvili played it that way, with some of the most intimate playing of a Mozart piano concerto I’ve ever heard.
I don’t usually comment on a performer’s dress, but because of her style of playing, I’m going to. Buniatishvili walked on stage in a long, slinky, tight floor-length gown and spiked heels. As someone nearby said, “She is the Georgian Yuja Wang.” But I only mention her attire because it matched her playing: as she played the Mozart exquisitely, she ran her fingers through her hair and caressed the air after certain passages, all of which gave the impression that she was making love to the music. Of course, that’s not a bad thing, especially with her pianistic skills. And the A major concerto is about as pure as musical expression gets, so one can understand how it would evoke feelings of passion.
During her curtain calls, Buniatishvili also seemed to be enamored of the orchestra and audience because she again and again clapped for the orchestra and blew kisses to the audience. Even though the last movement of the Mozart gave Buniatishvili a chance to show off an exquisite technique, I still expected her to come out with a blockbuster encore. Instead she chose Claire de Lune by Debussy and gave the most ethereal performance of an already delicate piece I can remember hearing. The control she demonstrated was remarkable, and the resulting sound almost otherworldly. It truly was a performance for one’s spirit to escape the earthly bounds.
The second half was taken up with the Bruckner. When Tilson-Thomas came out, he spoke to the audience about the Bruckner, comparing it to a national park with its wide vistas and its little musical trails that all ultimately lead back to and are part of the larger park. He went on a little too long, especially considering that the symphony is over 60 minutes.
With the idea of an expansive national park planted firmly in our thoughts, Tilson-Thomas conducted a performance of the symphony that was equally expansive. For this “Brucknerd,” any chance to hear his symphonies, especially Nos. 4-9, performed by an orchestra of the caliber of the LA Phil in a venue like Disney Hall is simply not to be missed. Of course, they are not for the faint of heart. If one is not already intimately familiar with his symphonies, it is difficult to sit for more than an hour, and, indeed, some people left during this performance. But for those who are patient the rewards are great.
Bruckner himself was an odd man, but one who was very spiritual and religious and one who idolized Richard Wagner. And, particularly in the seventh symphony, both are expressed with music that is at once tragic and glorious. Bruckner was also a church organist, and like other composers who were also outstanding organists (e.g., Cesar Franck), one can hear the organ in his symphonic writing.
The overall effect, as Tilson-Thomas suggested, is a journey through a landscape of emotions expressed by unique symphonic writing that, unlike his idol Wagner, is very traditional. Bruckner’s symphonies represent probably the last incarnation of Haydn, Mozart and especially Schubert in terms of structure. But they are a glorious way to end that lineage, and Tilson-Thomas and the LA Phil gave an equally glorious performance.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA