The Los Angeles Philharmonic is heralded as one of the great success stories in a struggling field. It raises a lot of money; it has a popular star music director, Gustavo Dudamel; and it performs a lot of interesting, unusual repertory. So it was somewhat dismaying to find the ensemble at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night, as part of its East Coast tour, with what amounted to a routine program.
Routine? you ask. They were playing Beethoven’s Ninth, one of the greatest works in the repertory. That was paired with a new work by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra’s former music director: “Pollux” had its premiere in Los Angeles earlier this month. All this was led by Dudamel with his usual excitement. Doesn’t all that automatically make for an Event?
Well, no, it doesn’t. There was something almost jaded about the Washington Performing Arts presentation: a manufactured event that everybody wanted to like (indeed, the audience reacted with boisterous ovations) but that was hollow at the core.
“Pollux” was the evening’s strength. Salonen has the sound of an orchestra anchored in his ear and here brought out its full range of sonorities and color in a work that sounded thoroughly contemporary yet had a 19th-century voluptuousness, as if someone were painting Mondrian but using Titian’s palette and brushstrokes. This is music by someone who still takes orchestras seriously as a medium of expression and is comfortable enough with them not to write reverentially or, as so often happens, in quotation marks. And for this, Dudamel is a perfect conductor. He, too, has orchestra music in his blood and brought out the lyrical nuance of a dark and lovely piece.
When the Ninth began, I briefly thought that it might be both good and distinctive. Dudamel clearly hears vertically more than horizontally, holding all the instruments of the orchestra in a balanced suspension, chord by chord, rather than running after individual themes, so there’s a thickness and dimensionality to the sound — all instruments sounding together, no one getting drowned out.
As the music continued, however, the performance proved not to be that distinctive after all. It unfolded with a lot of energy and affection, but without anything particular to say. And some parts, such as the second half of the third movement, became downright dreary.
The fourth movement picked up, and one highlight of the evening was the famous “Ode to Joy” theme making its way through the instrumental sections, before the singers come in, starting with gorgeous, hushed playing from the basses and continuing to grow brighter and more luminous as it was passed around, like a sunrise across the sea of the orchestra. The bass soloist, Alexander Vinogradov (substituting for Davone Tines, who was ill), offered a robust introduction to the vocal finale.
But that, too, proved anticlimactic. Having members of four local choruses sing together — the Choral Arts Society’s Scott Tucker prepared members of his chorus, the Washington Chorus, Catholic University’s chamber choir and Washington Performing Arts’ Men and Women of the Gospel Choir — was presumably supposed to bolster the sense of event, but the group didn’t quite cohere. The tenor, Michael König, was dry, and the two women, Julianna di Giacomo and Jennifer Johnson Cano, sounded a little shrill. As for Dudamel, he focused on energy and power at the expense of the ethereal, so the hints of the Infinite that usually break through in the music were absent. The Kennedy Center last rang out with Beethoven’s Ninth in June, when Christoph Eschenbach concluded his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. For all the Los Angeles ensemble’s vigor, I liked Eschenbach’s and the NSO’s performance better.