A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Hélène Grimaud / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

On Sunday, French pianist Hélène Grimaud performed the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 by Brahms under the direction of guest conductor James Gaffigan.

The concerto began with a beautifully sonorous horn introduction by LA Phil Principal Andrew Bain (and later echoed beautifully by Amy Jo Rhine), which established the melodic theme of the first movement and which is immediately answered by elegant arpeggios played on the piano.

From there on, the piano part demands a performer of virtuoso talents and skills, which Grimaud definitely showed herself to be. She has an affinity for Brahms. In her last appearance in Los Angeles, she played a recital which included the Piano Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 2 by a much younger Brahms (see https://culturespotla.com/2015/04/review-helene-grimaud-in-recital-at-disney-hall/). In both pieces, one can imagine how Brahms must have played the piano, with hands big enough to achieve the complex chordal structures and rapid full-keyboard-length arpeggios, and with a reach that can allow the left and right hands to play frequently at opposite ends of the keyboard.

One realizes that the piano part of the concerto is much more demanding when one sees a performer play it, rather than listening to a recording. It demands not only an amazing pianistic technique, but strength and stamina, and frequently requires the left and right hands to play difficult passages at the extreme ends of the keyboard. Grimaud was up to the task. She seems to relish the challenge of playing the Brahms and for the most part succeeded in meeting it.

There were, however, some rough edges on Sunday. For instance, during the first and second movements, she and Gaffigan weren’t entirely in sync. Grimaud was clearly in charge, and Gaffigan at times could not keep up. Also, at times Grimaud seemed to be battling with the concerto rather than working with it. Maybe the score itself contributes to some of that. Overall, the performance didn’t come off as smoothly as it could have. Nonetheless, Grimaud’s prowess was on full display and “the tiny little concerto,” as Brahms described it, is a joy to hear.

Gaffigan programmed two works in the second half of the concert, the world premiere of James Matheson’s Unchained and Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé, by Ravel.

Unchained is one of those contemporary pieces that everyone can grasp. It is accessible, even to older ears who usually prefer the classics, while still sounding contemporary. Unlike many other contemporary works, it’s one of those pieces that if you heard it a few times, you could hum some of the melodies; it’s actually in a key, and the initial theme repeats toward the end, which gives one a sense of more classical structure. The story behind the piece is a personal one for Matheson and was inspired by his involvement with a friend who ended up going to prison and is scheduled to be released later this month. Without having to worry about a soloist, Gaffigan admirably led the Phil in a stirring performance and called the composer to the stage to share in the accolades from the audience.

What can one say about the Ravel? Lush, ravishing melodies and orchestration — exactly what one would expect from him. It is an orchestral showpiece, and what better orchestra to perform it than the LA Phil. It also showcased several of the Phil’s great players, including Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov, clarinetist Andrew Lowy and a stellar percussion section. One could not help leaving Disney Hall happy and refreshed after the glorious ending of Daphnis.

Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

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