Critic at Large


By Robert Reid

The Monterey Bay area offers a variety of musical riches, but to experience a touring international symphony orchestra in concert, it is necessary to leave the area. Over a day and a half in early March, this reviewer ventured forth to hear performances of three great orchestras perform in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In addition to some wonderful music, what impressed most were contrasting sounds and styles of the ensembles.

On Sunday afternoon, March 2, at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the combined forces of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela—158 musicians in all—presented the final concert of their Dudameleleven-day Tchaikovsky Fest. Gustavo Dudamel (left) was the conductor. The finale, as promoted in the printed program, “opens with the ebullient Capriccio Italien, sweeps through suites from the Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and climaxes with the thundering 1812 Overture.” Omitted from this list was the highlight of my afternoon, an impassioned performance of the tone poem Francesca da Rimini.

From the unison bugle call in the opening measures of Capriccio Italien, we knew we were in for a sonic treat. The Tchaikovsky score calls for 2 cornets and 2 trumpets, but Dudamel doubled the contingent to 4 instruments each. The effect was spine tingling. At the conclusion of this brief opening work, the orchestras were greeted with a standing ovation. I’ve never experienced such exuberance following the opening piece of a concert.

Much of the excitement was due to the magnetic young conductor, Dudamel, and the energetic, impassioned playing of the Venezuelans who were seated alongside their colleagues from the LA Phil. While the Californians are a suave, polished orchestra of the first rank, the young—most are in their 20s and 30s—Venezuelans exhibit great energy and passion to go along with finely honed musical skills. The energy was infectious and lifted the performance level of the combined orchestras.

The principal players exchanged seating positions several times during the concert. The California first-chair players occupied those seats in the beginning and concluding works while the Venezuelans took the lead in the middle section of the program. There was no decline in quality with the youngsters in charge, but there was a noticeable difference in sound and style. The flute, oboe and clarinet solo work in the central section of Francesca was luscious.

The 1812 Festive Overture closed the program and delivered the usual thrills. The work is frequently performed at the Hollywood Bowl, but this was only the third time in 44 years that the LA Philharmonic had performed the work indoors. What did they do for cannons, you ask? Well, 6 bass drums whacked simultaneously can make up for the lack of artillery. And in the concluding triumphant restatement of the Orthodox hymn tune, Save us, O Lord, the huge orchestra was augmented by additional brass in the organ loft along with organ support for the basses. Bombast, yes, but what a way to conclude a festival celebrating the appealing music of Tchaikovsky.

Following a long drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Monday, March 3, I arrived in time for an evening concert of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall. The Philharmonic is theTemirkanov oldest and most distinguished of the Russian orchestras. It has toured the world regularly since 1946 and the current conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, (right) has led the orchestra since 1988.

Compared to the brassy, bravura performance style of the Los Angeles orchestras, this ensemble with its ‘Russian sound’ would offer a marked contrast. Anthony Tommasini, music critic of the New York Times, has this to say about the Russian sound: “We are supposedly living in an era in which the world is getting smaller, and distinctive national characteristics of orchestras are becoming homogenized into an international style. But the Russian orchestras have clung more strongly to their roots, and to the characteristic Russian sound that favors dark colorings, mellow brass, reedy woodwinds and weighty textures; particularly this Russian orchestra (the St. Petersburg Philharmonic).”

The start of the concert was marked by a protest. As Maestro Temirkanov raised his baton to cue the opening notes, a woman seated behind the orchestra in the terrace section screamed, “Yuri, you’re a sexist Putinist,” and waved a LGBT flag. She was quickly removed, conductor and orchestra regained composure and the music began. On the program were the Overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the young Norwegian violinist, Vilde Frang, as soloist and, following the intermission, Symphony No. 2 of Rachmaninoff.

The Rossini and Prokofiev works had their moments, but it was the Rachmaninoff symphony that impressed me most. The Philharmonic and Maestro Temirkanov gave a brilliant performance. This symphony can sound like sentimental mush in some hands, but not when this Russian orchestra is on stage. The strings were exceptional and exhibited a warm, dark and polished sound. Rarely does one have much to say about the string bass and viola sections, but their work was beautiful. While the strings developed a large, full sound, there was a transparency that allowed the solo instruments to be heard clearly.

A live performance of the Berlin Philharmonic here in the Monterey Bay Area? 

Yes, you can enjoy live concerts by some of the finest orchestras in the world at home on your computer or TV screen. An online subscription to the Digital Concert Hall is required, but the cost is reasonable. Subscribers enjoy HD video, high fidelity sound and superb camera work. An added benefit is access to hundreds of concerts in the video archives that you can visit at your leisure.  Check out the site on your computer and choose a free trial concert.

On Saturday, March 15, the program was Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 with Emanuel Ax and the Bruckner Symphony No. 4 Romantic. The conductor was the Dutchman Bernard Haitink, a frequent collaborator with the orchestra since 1964. I love Bruckner, so the symphony was the main attraction for me. 

Symphony No. 4 may be the most accessible and popular of Bruckners symphonies. It was a joy to observe this virtuoso orchestra led by a fine Bruckner interpreter. The players clearly have great admiration for Haitink and it was reflected in the beautiful performance of the long symphony. Solo work by the principal French horn, Stefan Dohr, was exceptional and he received a huge ovation at the conclusion of the concert.

Robert Reid writes classical music critiques for PAMB. He is also an accomplished clarinetist