A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

After more than a month’s absence from the LA Phil, Dudamel returned in late November to conduct his final series of concerts for the year. And if the concert on Dec. 7 was any indication, he’s returned refreshed and energized, although he didn’t spend that month lying on a beach somewhere.

Sunday’s concert included three works: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Helix, Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, Op. 29, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Ravel).

After some congratulatory remarks by Debra Borda about retiring bassist John Schiavo’s 40-year career with the LA Phil, and a few comments by Schiavo himself, Dudamel strode on stage to conduct Salonen’s Helix.

Salonen described his composition as a “celebratory and direct overture-like piece.” It was composed for and dedicated to the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. As with many of Salonen’s compositions, Helix is accessible and understandable to the more conservative listeners in the audience, drawing them in with an almost-serene beginning. Of course, the piece ends in a whirlwind. But, at about nine minutes, Helix is compact and dense. Dudamel and the orchestra performed it with the same affection they feel for the composer himself.

After a brief break to rearrange the orchestra, the LA Phil performed Rachmaninoff’s evocative Isle of the Dead, inspired by a painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin, which depicts a small rowboat arriving at a dark and desolate island. The main theme of Rachmaninoff’s tone poem is in 5/8 meter meant to evoke the rowing motion of the boat. From the beginning barely audible strings with the harp doubling the basses to the pianissimo ending, the piece, like the painting, is somber, but the music and orchestration are emotionally wrenching. The expressions on Dudamel’s face showed that he was clearly driven and emotionally consumed, and the LA Phil reflected that in their impassioned performance.

The concert concluded with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, another piece based on art, or more specifically, a memorial exhibition of works by Mussorgsky’s friend and artist Viktor Hartmann, whose sudden death was the catalyst for the piece. Mussorgsky originally composed the piece for piano solo, and although it has been orchestrated more than once, the Ravel orchestration is the most popular, and for good reason: Ravel was a master orchestrator and colorist. Ravel gives many of the instruments (e.g., saxophone, bassoon, horn, tenor tuba, flute) solos, and the LA Phil principals showed why they are among the best in the world. Ravel exploits all of the possible colors of the orchestra, and after hearing a performance, especially one like Sunday’s, it is difficult to imagine that the piece wasn’t written for orchestra.

Dudamel and the LA Phil took a very popular and often-played composition and made it sound fresh and exciting. As with the Isle of the Dead, Dudamel was completely involved in the music with facial expressions and body movements to match. At the Apotheosis of the main theme at the end of the piece, Dudamel was spent, and the audience immediately rose to their feet cheering their musical director and orchestra.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.