with Antonio Pappano conducting
April 3, 1999 was a celebration of sorts for French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. It was the last of his 3-day engagement with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and his 50th public performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto # 1. (He first performed it in 1986; and yes, that’s his own personal score of the concerto on the piano in his dressing room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.)
True to type, Jean-Yves delivered – with eloquent passion, brilliant mastery, precision and panache. Trademark traits that would have surely pleased Franz Liszt, by all accounts the piano virtuoso of his time. Some who were seeing Jean-Yves on stage for the first time marveled at the way his long fingers seemed to caress the keys as he played. (No, the red socks were not a distraction.) Not surprising for a pianist who is a romantic at heart, an unabashed champion of Franz Liszt, whose playing brings new respectability to Liszt’s oft-trashed-because-familiar music and allows, if not commands, us to look at Liszt with new eyes and to listen to his music as if we were hearing it for the very first time.
This performance with the LA Philharmonic was also somewhat of a celebration of youth in music. The orchestra was masterfully led by the youthful conductor ANTONIO PAPPANO* who is just a year younger than Thibaudet. The London-born Italian-American became the Music Director of Brussels’ Theatre Royal de la Monnaie at age 32. While principally a conductor of opera – and when he’s not in Brussels he wields his baton in most all the world’s great opera houses- FanFaire first saw him at the Met’s Eugene Onegin). Obviously, he is as at home on the concert stage as in the orchestra pit, as he amply demonstrated at this Easter weekend performance with the LA Philharmonic. (Need it be mentioned that this great orchestra is energized by youth – as personified by its brilliant Music Director ESA PEKKA-SALONEN** who, still boyish-looking at 40, has led the orchestra through this decade to the exalted status it enjoys today?) The chemistry between Pappano and the orchestra was evident in their reading of the evening’s musical fare which, with the exception of the Piano Concerto, resounded with religious undertones appropriate to the season.
The opening number was ARTHUR HONEGGER’s rarely performed Symphony No. 3 otherwise known as “Symphonie liturgique.” Composed in 1946 at the end of World War II, the music is cinematic. Its lush orchestration calls for a dazzling use of wind and percussion (with occasional piano) that in the first movement, aptly subtitled Dies irae, produce waves of explosive dissonances that evoke wrathful images of war, dissolving in the second movement into the plaintive sound of the flute made to exemplify the soul pleading for deliverance, rather like a bird rising from the ruins.
In the final movement Honegger, engaging in a bit of sociology, recalls both the clangor of the first movement – this time in a marching rhythm evocative of man enslaved to machine, at war so to speak with industrialization, desperately crying for peace (Donna nobis pacem!) – and the hushed, bird-like sounds of the second movement as peace is finally granted, bringing the symphony to an uncharacteristically quiet end.
The closing number, FELIX MENDELSSOHN’s Symphony No. 5 (chronologically his second symphony, aka “Reformation”) is the least known of his symphonies. The subtitle derives from the fact that it was commisioned in 1829 (when Mendelssohn was but a lad of 20!) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran document of faith. (Originally Jewish, the prominent Mendelssohn family became Lutheran converts.) However, because of revolutionary disturbances and protests from the Catholic Church, the symphony was not performed as planned. And although it later premiered in 1932, the work was not published until 20 years after Mendelssohn’s death. While scholars and critics are at one about the programmatic nature of Honegger’s Symphony liturgique, they are divided about applying the same description to the Reformation. Mendelssohn’s symphony, some say, is an abstract piece of music, devoid of any religious or celebratory meaning. But what does it matter? Like all of Mendelssohn’s works, it is a thing of beauty bursting with many melodic and grandiose passages, in itself worthy of celebration in today’s concert halls. The LA Philharmonic is to be commended for introducing us to these orchestral rarities, and for happily rounding out the evening with a virtuoso performance of an ever popular piano concerto. Bravo!
*PAPPANO held his Brussels position until 2002. In 1999 he was appointed Music Director of the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) effective in the 2002-03 season through 2013.
** SALONEN turned over the Music Directorship of the LA Philharmonic to GUSTAVO DUDAMEL in the 2009-10 season after a most productive 17-year tenure.