The raison d’être for spending the Thanksgiving weekend in LA was to hear soprano Christine Brewer sing Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” (Vier letzte Lieder) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by its soon-to-be music director, the 27-year-old Venezuelan sensation Gustavo Dudamel, in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The last few times I’ve been in LA, I have not been able to get tickets, so was eager to see and hear Frank Gehry’s much-lauded concert hall (having joined the ranks of fans of his Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and enjoyed Sydney Pollack’s documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry).
Disney Hall is considerably smaller than Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and with “Dudamania” raging in Los Angeles, friends there were surprised that we could get tickets. (The explanation of that was “connections”: our entourage was organized by a friend of the soloist, so that we were also authorized to go backstage after the concert – though it took the help of a security guard to guide us to “backstage.” “Backstage” is not an obvious location in a theater pretty much in the round!)
Ms. Brewer has a big, powerful voice that could (and often does!) fill a larger hall with beautiful, rich sound. The Strauss songs do not require full Brünhilde throttle. (Brewer was also preparing an upcoming LA Opera “Götterdamerung” Brünhilde), though there is a juncture in the third song that provides a thrilling soprano crescendo that gives me goose bumps when a soprano who can really do it (like Brewer or Jessye Norman in her prime) does it.
I could always hear the soprano, but thought that the orchestra was playing too loudly (or the fabled acoustics are imperfect). I have thought this in other live performances of the songs. Perhaps my sense of proper balance is overly influenced by recordings (there is a 2006 recording by Brewer with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles; I already have recordings of Jessye Norman, Gundula Janowitz, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf doing them), but I think that Maestro Dudamel should have lowered the orchestral volume at some junctures. He certainly did so at the end of the opening piece, György Ligetti’s (1961) “Atmospherics” (Atmosphères), forever “space ship music” since its use in Stanley Kubrick’s (1968) “2001: A Space Odyssey.” (Ligetti (1923-2006), BTW, was reportedly concerned that he would be forgotten after his death and also was dismayed that his music was used in a movie, though that use is the primary reason he has not been forgotten.)
The Ligetti, which runs about ten minutes, is all texture with no discernible melody or rhythm and no harmony in any conventional sense. It begins with a gigantic tone cluster that includes every note in the chromatic scale played at once. (None of the fifty-six string players play the same note in this opening “chord.”) Ligetti called what he was doing “micropolyphony”: “The complex polyphony of the individual parts is embodied in a harmonic-musical flow, in which the harmonies do not change suddenly, but merge into one another; one clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape.”
Dudamel grew up with this music (written two decades before he was born) as familiar. I wouldn’t say that it is “old hat,” because the old, way-too-powdered woman sitting beside me asked me after the piece if it was “new music.” It premiered only a dozen years after the Strauss, so I answered “Not very” (and forebore suggesting she wear less gag-inducing layers of powder and perfume to future concerts she attends…)
I adore the last three (in the usual order of performance) Strauss songs: “September” and “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to Sleep), settings of poems by Herman Hesse, and “Abendrot” (At Sunset) Strauss’s setting of a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, which was composed in 1948, before the three Hesse settings (“Frühling” (Spring) is for me the least of them for me).
Strauss did not know that these would be his last compositions. Indeed, he was working on setting another Hesse poem. Nor is there any indication that he thought of “Abendrot” being part of a composition of four songs. Be that as it may, it is the one that befits closure: the lyrics end with the words “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (Is this perhaps death?) followed by a quotation of the “transfiguration theme” from his “Death and Transfiguration” (Tod und Verklärung) written six decades earlier (when he was about the age Dudamel is now). The instrumental conclusion is gorgeous but unshowy. Indeed, beautiful sound is spun by the soprano, the concertmaster’s violin solos, and prominent brass (as in most Strauss) and both Brewer and Dudamel commanded the sweep of Strauss’s soaring, often radiant, lyrical lines. (Brewer showed not the slightest strain in wafting the often long German phrases through the hall.)
After intermission (and with some difficulty finding my way back to the entrance to the section where I was sitting), the audience settled deeper into the Romantic canon even than Strauss’s last songs with Beethoven’s Sixth/Pastoral Symphony, which was premiered along with the Fifth in the Theater an der Wien 22 on December 1808.
Though not recently, I have heard the Beethoven Sixth many times. I’d forgotten how Classical (in contrast to Romantic) the first movement – Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande (Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country) – is. The melodious brook of the next movement also sounded Classical. Although Dudamel has expressed his admiration for Leonard Bernstein, Dudamel does not tarry in the Bernstein manner of milking scores at funereal tempi. Indeed, Dudamel moved through the Strauss at a relatively fast clip.
The Allegro Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Happy gathering of country folk) rollicked. The musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the country folk conjured by Beethoven. The also Allegro storm was ferocious (thunderous). I had no doubts about the acoustics for loud orchestra! (I did, however, feel that the San Francisco brass are superior to the LA brass.)
The final Allegretto movement – Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm (Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm) – brought the audience to its feet (for the second time; Brewer also received a standing ovation). I thought that the performance was better than competent, but not deserving of so rapturous a standing ovation. (I think San Franciscans are also promiscuous in giving standing ovations and that standing ovations should be exceptional, not the reward for good work.)
“Dudamania” may be excessive, but on the basis of the concert I heard, I have no reason to doubt that he is “the real thing.” He seemed pleasingly humble both in crediting everyone else except himself in responding to applause and in passing him and a court of admirers backstage as we were leaving with the Brewers (husband and daughter as well as the soloist of the evening).