The Los Angeles Philharmonic made one thing clear this past weekend: The symphonic orchestra is one big machine. It’s a point that Esa-Pekka Salonen enjoyed making whenever he conducted Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” or even his own “L.A. Variations.” Conductor Gustavo Dudamel added his own two cents with the world premiere of a new piece that examined the phenomenon of pulsars via an electric cello.
John Adams is an apt composer to display the might and intricacy of the orchestral mechanism via his “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” It captures the frightening sensation of being driven in a very fast sports car, registering every firing synapse in the passenger’s brain. A bright fanfare of kinetic fury, the Philharmonic used it brilliantly to stretch its legs. The group’s long association with Adams was evident in how well they tackled his trademark polyrhythm.
For the new piece, “Magnetar,” by Enrico Chapela, cellist Johannes Moser emerged with the Yamaha SVC-110SK electric cello, which has a fingerboard and strings, but with a body that is merely an empty outline. Connected to a laptop and speaker next to the conductor’s podium, it gave the cello all the effects that pedals would imaginably lend to an electric guitar. Moser and the orchestra provided all the grandeur of being in the expanse of the blackest space with passages of ethereal color and heft. It culminated in a low-key cadenza that showed off all of the magic and tricks of the device. Echos and muted screams were interesting, but its slow development and clunky flow interrupted the sensory trip.
The slower second movement featured several moments that could be likened to movie music, from the stylized strains of an old black-and-white movie taking place on an African river, to a film noir jazz section that had some swagger to it. It definitely caught the listener off guard but not as much as the full-on distorted cello that opened the third movement and had the orchestra rocking out to the end (albeit with a sort of dated sound). In the world of new music, Magnetar won’t be played as often as an Adams piece, but the Philharmonic will certainly be the one to find the next Adams with its exemplary championing of new music.
The monumental “Symphony No. 5” by Sergei Prokofiev provided the traditional touchstone of the evening, though it is anything but. Written in war-racked Russia in 1944, it’s superficially referred to as a war symphony and can be such when it’s conducted with broad strokes, but Dudamel didn’t do that. If there is a protagonist in the symphony, he examined the eccentric hero’s courage, foolhardiness, catharsis and triumph with a storyteller’s aplomb. That said, the piece is a gold mine of textures and colors, and Dudamel went for the half-exposed nuggets rather than the ones hidden deep in the rock. The impact of the piece was not diminished, however, as the wonder and power of the organic machine at his behest was on full display.