The LA Phil is a great orchestra by any measure. But great orchestras don’t always play up to their greatness even though they always play well. Many factors contribute to an orchestra playing to its full potential, and a crucial one is the conductor. One of the most interesting parts of getting to see a variety of guest conductors with the Phil is to hear how the orchestra plays for him or her. On Sunday afternoon, the audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall got to hear the Phil at their very best under the direction of the Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan (the son of the late conductor Armin Jordan).
Jordan conducted the LA Phil in an all-Strauss program, including Don Quixote, Op. 35, with the French cellist Gautier Capuçon and the LA Phil’s principal violist Teng Li, and Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40.
It was no accident that Jordan presented these two works on the same program because not only were they composed at the same time and published one year apart (1897 and 1898 respectively), but Strauss intended them to complement each other. After all, each depicts a hero: Don Quixote on the one hand and, well, mostly likely Strauss himself on the other hand, although that issue has been debated ever since the premiere of Ein Heldenleben. No matter. They are both masterpieces of the tone poem genre which Strauss championed and perfected, including Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”) and Also Sprach Zarathustra (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”), among others.
We were excited to see Jordan again in LA (see http://culturespotla.com/review-philippe-jordan-conducts-the-la-phil-in-excerpts-from-wagner-der-ring-des-nibelungen/) and, once again, he wowed us.
He brought out all the humor and pathos of Don Quixote, and the orchestra played sharply. The solo cello, representing Don Quixote, and the solo viola, representing Sancho Panza, were played with passion and verve by Capuçon and Li respectively, and solos by the other LA principals were on the mark. Capuçon, who had played the part of Don with the Phil in 2013 (see http://culturespotla.com/review-charles-dutoit-leads-the-la-phil-and-gauthier-capucon-in-strauss/) had the score in front of him but rarely looked at it.
As outstanding as the Phil’s performance of Don Quixote was, Jordan took it up a notch with Ein Heldenleben. Of course, the piece lends itself to the sort of heroic performance Jordan and the Phil gave it. It was a performance that grabbed the listener from the first few notes and didn’t let go until the final crescendo as it faded away. The strings were lush, the brass was bold, and the woodwinds were crisp. Jordan wasn’t afraid to pull out all the stops with this great orchestra, and he took them and the audience to new dizzying heights with Strauss’ noble tone poem. LA Phil Concertmaster Martin Chalifour played the violin solo part (as he did in Don Quixote), representing the hero’s companion, said to be Strauss’ wife, the singer Pauline de Ahna. Strauss described her as “very complex, a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute.” Chalifour portrayed all of the attributes in his playing.
It was odd that the hall wasn’t full, which was a shame for those not lucky enough to attend this feast for the ears. When the sad day comes when Dudamel leaves the LA Phil, Jordan would be one of the conductors to get my vote for his successor.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA