As its centenary approaches, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is motoring ahead at full throttle. For the 2018/19 season it has announced more than 50 commissions of new music. As befits the city where Harvey Weinstein made his mark, a decent number of them will be by women composers.
It is going to be hard to keep up. The residency which the orchestra has at the Barbican offers a snapshot of its activities once a year, this three-day visit comprising a pair of orchestral concerts, a contemporary programme, and a joint event bringing together young musicians from LA and London.
When an orchestra has a strong personality, even a short visit can tell a lot. The arrival of Gustavo Dudamel from the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, cauldron of youth music in Venezuela, gave the LA Phil not only a valuable Latin connection, but also proven inspirational leadership. His concerts are high-octane, making up in New World drive and flair what they lack in Old World grace and wisdom.
Like his predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Dudamel likes to pack his concerts with new music and 20th-century classics. With an affectionate nod, they started with Salonen’s Pollux, newly written this year, a Barbican co-commission. It is a succinct mythological portrait (a companion piece picturing Castor is likely to follow) that assembles clouds of sounds and distils them into chorale-like formations, not memorable, but intriguing to the ear.
The urban jungle of Varèse’s Amériques, with its police sirens and battery of percussive noises, is as much a shocker now as it was in the 1920s. Sometimes echoes of the composer’s French origins can be discerned if a performance has a feel for impressionist haze, but not here. Dudamel drove it hard, fast and loud, unsubtle but a knockout.
The same might be said of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5. Some of the most effective performances can be those that bide their time, building up atmosphere and tension. Dudamel homed in on its primary colours, heightening contrasts and playing each section for all its worth. The result was less than the sum of its parts, but those parts were blazing in their conviction, and Dudamel’s forward drive never faltered. This is a partnership in a hurry for the future.
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