A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Jaap van Zweden and Simon Trpčeski / photo courtesy of LA Phil

Last night Jaap van Zweden, the director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO), returned to LA to conduct the LA Phil in the overture, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Op. 23 by the Dutch composer, Johan Wagenaar, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the Symphony No. 4 in E minor by Johannes Brahms.

Van Sweden, who is a short, stocky man, figuratively and literally leapt into the Wagenaar overture, which begins with a similar motif as Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan.” And that’s not the only similarity to Strauss. The markings in the score reading “Heroism,” “Love, Poetry,” “Rejoicing, Strength of Character,” “Cheerfulness, Chivalry,” “Humor,” and “Satire” remind one of Strauss’ large tone poems, “Ein Heldenleben” and “Sinfonia Domestica.”

Although composed after the turn of the 20th century, the piece is distinctly romantic in both style and scoring. The only percussion called for is timpani and triangle, the same percussion called for in the Brahms Fourth Symphony.

It was refreshing to hear a piece that one hasn’t heard before and, let’s face it, will probably never hear again, and the LA Phil under Van Sweden’s direction did it justice.

The first half concluded with the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Rachmaninoff with the Macedonian soloist Simon Trpčeski (pronounced SIM-mon Terp-CHESS-kee). Trpčeski has been playing a lot of Rachmaninoff lately, including the First Concerto with the DSO in Dallas and with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Europe, both with Van Zweden conducting. And he just recorded the Second and Third Piano Concertos with Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Although Trpčeski’s performance on the new recording is first-rate, the less-than-first-rate production and sound doesn’t allow the listener to fully appreciate his playing. Last night, however, was a different story. He played the Rachmaninoff effortlessly and, like Van Zweden, got physically into the music, jumping off the piano stool several times. When his hands weren’t busy on the keys, they were constantly moving almost in one motion from the beginning of the piece to the end, sometimes conducting like some audience members can be seen doing. Because they have worked together, especially with this piece, Van Zweden and Trpčeski performed it with an understanding that required very little in the way of watching each other. And Van Szeden moderated the volume of the orchestra so the audience could hear the piano. Finally, kudos to Associate Principal Horn player Eric Overholt for his rich playing in the second movement.

Although the audience clearly appreciated Trpčeski’s performance, giving him a standing ovation, he didn’t need much coaxing to play two encores, one by a Macedonian composer and one by Chopin to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth a few weeks ago. It was clear that Trpčeski loves playing the piano, and his friendly, outgoing personality (see Culture Spot LA’s interview with him https://culturespotla.com/2010/04/simon-trpceski-at-disney-hall/ ) translates to his demeanor onstage. During his performance, he looked around at the orchestra members and at the audience, sometimes smiling.

The concert concluded with a performance of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, and as I have said before, it is hard not to enjoy a great piece performed by a world-class orchestra in a wonderful hall. However, even though the LA Phil did their best, including a wonderful flute solo by Catherine Ransom Karoly and nice ensemble playing by the patient trombone section in the fourth movement, Van Zweden’s Brahms did not wow. He certainly conducted it competently and, even though he used a score, he clearly knew the piece. But something was missing and it wasn’t his enthusiasm. Several times during the concert he jumped up and down on the podium so hard that it could be heard halfway back in the hall.

One problem was that the balance of various instrumental sections seemed to be off. One could chalk it up to the finicky acoustics in Disney Hall, but the first two pieces on the program sounded fine. It also might be that a powerful reading of the Brahms requires a more seasoned conductor to fully realize the emotional depths of the symphony.  At the end of the day, I think it was just that Van Zweden’s interpretation didn’t work for me.

All in all, however, the evening was a satisfying one.

The concert repeats today at 2 p.m. For information or tickets, visit https://www.laphil.com/tickets/program-detail.cfm?id=2014.