On Feb. 12, the famed pianist Martha Argerich returned to Los Angeles to perform the Piano Concert in A minor, Op. 54 by Robert Schumann. Also on the program were Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24. The LA Phil was led by guest conductor Juraj Valčuha.
Let’s face it, the evening was all about Argerich. Of course, there were whispers about whether the legendary pianist would actually show up; the last time she was scheduled to appear she cancelled at the last minute, something she has done elsewhere on occasion. And, after the conclusion of the Britten, it seemed to take a long time before the piano was rolled on stage, which only increased the fear that, at the very last moment, a program change would be announced.
Needless to say, the excitement in the air was palpable, and when she strode onstage, the Argerich faithful, as well as those who had been waiting for years for a chance to hear the celebrated pianist, cheered. With her trademark long hair, now gray, the 73-year-old Argerich launched into the Schumann with a vigor that showed she’s lost none of the fire and energy that helped catapult her into the international spotlight several decades ago.
With admirable accompaniment by Valčuha, Argerich navigated the emotional landscape of the Schumann, wringing out the tender passages and then demonstrating her still-remarkable technical skills in the more demanding passages. This was her Schumann, and at times it seemed as if it was all Valčuha could do to keep up. It must have been a little nerve-racking for the young Slovakian conductor to be onstage accompanying someone of Argerich’s stature. Argerich, on the other hand, appeared relaxed and seemed to be having a good time, even engaging in a little light-hearted chat with Concertmaster Martin Chalifour in between the first and second movements.
At the conclusion, the audience screamed enthusiastically for their idol. Argerich, appearing a little embarrassed, motioned for Valčuha to join her in her bows and she bowed to the orchestra. She then delighted the audience with a wonderfully fluid, delicate encore of Schumann’s Traumes Wirren (Dream’s Confusion), which drove the audience further into a frenzy. Finally, Argerich had to lead the orchestra offstage.
The Schumann was sandwiched between the Britten and the Strauss, both masterworks for the orchestra. Unfortunately, many audience members left after the first half. By doing so, they missed hearing Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, one of the great works in the orchestral repertoire.
Although the Phil played wonderfully for Valčuha, his conducting was somewhat mechanical—lacking the smooth, flowing movements that these works, especially the Strauss, calls for—to the point of being distracting. And the fact that he used scores for all three works made for further distraction.
I was disappointed that Valčuha didn’t ask Principal Flutist Julien Beaudiment to stand after the Britten. Beaudiment is one of those relatively recent hires who adds immeasurably to the orchestra whenever he plays; and he was the focal point for the Britten. Other standouts in the Strauss were Principal Oboist Ariana Ghez and Principal Bassoon Whitney Crockett, who, like Beaudiment, are consistently strong whenever they’re on stage.
Even though all the music on Thursday was exquisite, being able to hear Argerich was a rare treat that will linger with those lucky enough to have been in the audience.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.