Two different orchestras breezed into London recently: one slick and glamorous, the other staid and venerable. And a still, small voice inside me would have liked to say the latter took the laurels. But it wouldn’t be the truth.
Something about the glittering reputation (and appearance: they’re immaculately well-turned out) of the Los Angeles Philharmonic tends to put you on your guard. This is an orchestra whose home is a hall called Disney, and it reeks of Tinseltown and Academy Awards – a culture easily dismissed as shallow. But to hear it at the Barbican was to be utterly astonished – not just by the shine with which it coats its sound but by the serious musicianship it brought to a dynamic programme of Varèse and Shostakovich, prefaced by a unexpectedly romantic piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen called Pollux.
Salonen was once the LAPhil’s music director. Now, the MD is Gustavo Dudamel who was conducting this performance; and he too is a phenomenon with the potential to astonish. People sometimes say he’s good at dazzle but not depth, and they remind you of his showbiz antics with the Simón Bolívar youth orchestra, the band that made him famous.
But I was present years ago when, totally unknown, he won the first Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg. It was obvious to everybody there that we’d encountered an outstanding, all-round musical intelligence. And so, I think, he’s proved to be. What he achieved here at the Barbican was something that no British orchestra (alas) could have delivered. Sure it dazzled, but it also reached into the soul of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony; it found meaning in the clamour of Varèse’s Ameriques; it confounded anybody who thought Salonen a “difficult” composer, proving his new Pollux as accessible and lovely as a Schubert song.
I wish I could be so upbeat about the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, which was the other foreign orchestra in town. Had it been playing somewhere other than Cadogan Hall, I might. It’s a distinguished band, and here in London it was playing repertoire close to its heart – the “Resurrection” Symphony of Mahler, which requires vast forces and a full-sized chorus. But Cadogan Hall is an absurd place to attempt a score like this: it isn’t big enough. The music couldn’t breathe, it felt contained and stifled. And whatever the conductor Markus Poschner tried to open out the sound, it didn’t work. It’s hard for foreign orchestras these days to book the Barbican or Southbank, which is why they end up at Cadogan. But Cadogan is essentially a chamber space. For large-scale Mahler it should be a no-go area.
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