A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

On Saturday night the audience showed up at Disney Hall for the third installment of the LA Phil’s Brahms Unbound series expecting to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Tragic Overture and the Second Symphony, as well as a work for percussion and orchestra called Glorious Percussion by the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina.

The audience must have known something was amiss when on entering the hall, they noticed the stage completely consumed with percussion instruments. Then when Dudamel walked on stage with the five soloists for the Gubaidulina, he took a microphone and told the audience that it was tragic that they weren’t going to perform the Tragic Overture because it would be too difficult with the staging for the Gubaidulina. He then joked a bit, but it was no joke to the many in the audience who were there to hear those two works by Brahms. After all, it was supposed to be Brahms unbound, not Brahms slightly unbound.

It was tragic indeed that the overture, one of Brahms’ masterpieces, was sacrificed, especially since it had been scheduled to be on the program for months. Moreover, Dudamel had conducted the Gubaidulina before so he knew what was required to perform it. Why did he wait until the last minute to make the change? At the very least the audience did not get all their money’s worth.

The concerto for percussion by Gubaidulina was a spectacle, both sonically and visually. It seems as if she wrote the work for every percussion instrument ever invented, so much so that it was almost overkill. That’s not to say that the piece wasn’t interesting or that the ensemble, Glorious Percussion, the original soloists for the premiere who named their group after the work itself, weren’t skilled musicians and performers.

Despite the originality of the work, and several instances of wonderful orchestral color punctuated by percussive accompaniment, this piece undoubtedly will not be performed often for the same reason it prevented Dudamel from playing the Tragic Overture. It requires a slew of chimes, xylophones, marimbas, suspended cymbals, drums, Javanese gongs, and other odd instruments, not to mention five soloists.

Of course, the main course was the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 by Brahms, and unlike Dudamel’s slower than usual performance of the First Symphony two weeks ago, his performance of the Second Symphony, especially the first and fourth movements, was brisk, erasing somewhat the pastoral nature of the first movement, but enhancing the dance-like feel of the last movement. Dudamel also did not explore the extreme dynamic ranges he did in the First Symphony.

As usual, Dudamel was rewarded by a very responsive and adept orchestra, with stand-out performances by the principal horn Elizabeth Cook-Shen, principal flutist David Buck, and timpanist Joseph Pereira, not to mention wonderful ensemble playing by the trombones/tuba and woodwinds.

Dudamel and the LA Phil produced a wonderful reading of the Brahms, which made it all the more disappointing that the audience couldn’t hear their version of the Tragic Overture. In fact, at about 13 minutes, Dudamel could have included the Overture as an encore. But, alas, that was not to be.