On Sunday afternoon, Principal Guest Conductor Suzanne Malckie kicked off her last concert of the season at the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Steve Reich’s The Runner. Thanks to the Los Angeles Marathon, it was runners’ day. However, Reich is not one of them.
In a video for his 2016 piece for winds, percussion and strings, the composer, who turned 85 last month, said his workouts were a treadmill and a bicycle; the title came to him out of nowhere. At first, Reich resisted this name. But it got stuck because the performers had to keep track of a roughly 15-minute count. It’s not that this peerless pulse master has ever written a piece that doesn’t require serious rhythm – the amazing rhythmic complexities in Reich’s music require spectacular counting.
I don’t look that hot as a runner either. Stuck in a marathon traffic jam, I arrived at the Walt Disney Concert Hall just in time. But I lost the race by seconds, reaching the door to my aisle when it closed.
There were compensation. First, Nonesuch Records has recorded two weekend performances for the album, which is scheduled for release in the spring of 2022. Second, it was fascinating to watch Runner on the lobby monitor while simultaneously hearing the sound of the orchestra seeping through the closed doors of the hall and mixing with it. with more distant traffic sounds.
I know The Runner from the broadcasts of his first performances in Europe (premiere as dance score, choreographed by Wayne McGregor for the Royal Ballet). But in this case, because the inability to hear the details very well caused the push-pull modulating meters and paces to have a physical sensation that overwhelmed the auditory, as if the runners were more attuned to their heartbeat than to ambient sounds (other than maybe rhythmic applause ). Oddly enough, after he ran up the stairs and heard it this way, “Runner” really became more about running than passive listening, at least without the dance component.
However, there was never any doubt that the John Adams Violin Concerto with Leila Josefovich as soloist was the main attraction. The concert, which immediately made a splash at its 1994 premiere in Minneapolis and three years later in Phil’s Los Angeles, is already a widely performed contemporary classic.
Moreover, in the last three decades, not a year has passed without the orchestra programming something for Adams, who has been the creative director of LA Phil since 2009. For her part, Josefovich played Adams’ concert over 100 times and recorded it. Josefovich, MacArthur’s research assistant, absorbed it like no other violinist. As a longtime member of L.A. Phil, she inevitably becomes a violinist when the orchestra needs a bold, perceptive, thinking, dancing and virtuoso virtuoso soloist. Composers including Adams (in his last epic concert Scheherazade II), Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kaia Saariaho and many others try to write for her.
However, many times the violinist played Adams’ concerto (lived the concert is perhaps more accurate) and some of us may have heard it, Sunday’s performance was a new revelation. In a long section of the first movement, the solo violin traces one idea after another (Adams once likened it to an Indian raga) in an ever-evolving, endless melody. Its unpredictability can make it difficult to track no matter how many times you hear it, but Josefovich made it easier. She played every turn of the phrase, every gesture, as if it were a new thought or feeling that suddenly struck her.
During the slow movement, titled “The Body Through which the Dream Flows,” the orchestra sang a canon in Pachelbel’s style as the violin glided upward in an otherworldly melody. It seemed worthwhile to glance at Yosefovich’s feet from time to time to make sure they weren’t hovering a few inches off the ground. On the other hand, if you close your eyes, it becomes difficult to determine where the disembodied voice of the violin is coming from.
Back on earth, the violinist transformed into a still enthusiastic but now unrestrained rocker in an electrified final piece. Josefovich is not quite a runner either. Instead, her virtuosity conquers waves of jubilant energy. This time, I caught myself looking at the orchestra to see how these players could sit correctly.
Mälkki kept them at ease, although the orchestral accompaniment has its problems. The instrumental lines snake over the bar lines, intersecting in an intricate way. These instrumental colors are rarely stable, their combinations are constantly changing. Two vintage synthesizers from the early 90s added an electronic glaze that is best kept discreet. But the conductor played a decisive role in maintaining a solid foundation that allowed the soloist her exceptional openness. Was this what it was for earlier generations when Yasha Kheifets played the Tchaikovsky Concerto in his prime? Probably.
Like Adams’ Violin Concerto, Los Angeles Phil performed Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last major work, three years after it was written. (Rachmaninoff died shortly thereafter, in 1943, at the age of 70.) Few think of him as a composer from Los Angeles or Symphonic Variations as a work from Los Angeles. He lived here for a very short time, and his name is usually not mentioned in conversations about immigrants from Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century. He was not the kind of progressive person who changed the rules of the game like Schoenberg and Stravinsky in this city.
But on Sunday there was reason to think so about Rachmaninov. Great courage marked Melcky’s performance of the Russian scores by Tchaikovsky and Scriabin with LA Phil the week before, and this time with Rachmaninov even more. A modernist at heart, Mälkki strives for the loudest and most attention-grabbing thunder that timpani can deliver. It has crisp, transparent textures. She discovers in Rachmaninov an essential rhythmic drive, almost comparable to Stravinsky or Bartok. In this performance, she revealed a lyrical, melancholic, very Russian saxophone solo in the first movement of Variations – unsentimental, completely un-Russian and pure in sound, like spring water. She revived the Russian romantic, now a revolutionary.
Of course, this is a difficult year, as all planning for LA Phil always happens at the last minute. The Melkki marathon was hardly an option. However, for her, just two weeks of the season is too little.