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Heras-Casado Leads the LA Phil

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
03/02/2012 -  & March 3, 4, 2012
James Matheson: Violin Concerto
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, op. 40

Martin Chalifour (Violin)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Casado (Conductor)

(Courtesy of L.A. Philharmonic)

It is somewhat liberating to be at a point in contemporary music that defies pigeonholing. The genres “Avant-garde,” “Minimalist,” and “Neo-Romantic” no longer accurately describe what is being born in contemporary music today. Rather, it is often some amalgamation of styles including the former three with the results being occasionally esoteric. Thankfully, that is not the case with American composer James Matheson’s Violin Concerto, given its West Coast premiere by the LA Phil at Disney Hall Friday evening. Written as a joint commission between the LA Phil and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Matheson’s 25-minute piece is, admittedly, strongly influenced by Baroque forms. He gives the soloist Bach partita-inspired phrases that are reconstructed in fiercely more rapid succession. The accompanying orchestra plays expansive Baroque dance forms, prominently the Chaconne, as an overarching structural basis for the movements. But these are just some of the elements. There are Stravinsky-esque syncopations passing through the sections, undulating minimalist string accompaniment and an array of colorful percussion instruments, including tuned gongs, to spice things up.

The results are a piece that is challenging, marvelously well constructed, and fun. Maestro Heras-Casado played traffic cop, navigating the constant meter changes with his head in the score. However he still managed to provide energetic guidance for the players whose exemplary skill in modern music served them well. LA Phil Concertmaster Martin Chalifour played with remarkable dexterity in the first and third movements of the piece, dispatching Matheson’s treacherous melismas with little sign of fatigue. It was not all fireworks, however, as Chalifour shared some beautifully lyric playing in the second movement. The final, raucous movement was infectiously driven by the snap pizzicatos passed back and forth between the string sections. It was great fun in the tradition of violin concerto finales where listeners cannot help but be captivated by irresistible melodies and toe-tapping rhythms.

Forgoing an intermission (it was Casual Friday, after all), Heras-Casado then led the Phil through a polished and driving Ein Heldenleben. The string sound was focused and bright with fine rhythmic ensemble through Strauss’ sweeping phrases. Heras-Casado got what he wanted with the weight of his elbows (he conducts without a baton) demanding emphasis from the noble but potent brass. This is not to say his conducting is overbearing. Heras-Casado relaxes when he needs to, preferring to save his grand gestures for when they are absolutely necessary. The result made for a finely shaped Heldenleben that flowed with natural buoyancy. First Associate Concertmaster Nathan Cole received the loudest ovation of the night for his work in “The Hero’s Companion.” Cole beautifully played Strauss‘ long lines with a wonderful spontaneity and appropriate lack of overt sentimentality. “The Hero’s Battlefield” brought out the best in the Phil players as the brass really let their sound broaden without losing precision and punch. The piece concluded with a satisfying nobility defying grandiose self-importance. It was a fitting finale as the young Spanish maestro proved to be a fine match for an ensemble that thrives on intrinsically vivid music making, a heroic cause indeed. Ensuing performances throughout the weekend will include Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.

Matthew Richard Martinez



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