Most US orchestras touring Europe are so in thrall to the Old World that they feel they must excuse themselves for being American, rarely bringing any of their country’s music. If they do, it is a token. But the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought two substantial works by American composers – John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 – and performed them with eloquent conviction. The orchestra also brought Gustavo Dudamel, who in his year and a bit as music director has turned a decent west coast ensemble into one of the world’s greats – or so one might conclude from the media frenzy surrounding their partnership.

The truth, to judge by the first of their London concerts, is more prosaic (the tour ends in Vienna on February 5). The LA Phil has a characteristically stateside rhythmic verve – the syncopated heat of Adams’s orchestral essay was transmitted with artless finesse – and works well at dynamic extremes. Bernstein’s fortissimos came across with admirable lucidity, while the pianissimos were genuinely soft, giving the final “Lamentation”, exquisitely sung by Kelley O’Connor, the intimacy and depth it deserved. Like Adams, Bernstein wears his debts on his sleeve – Mahler and Shostakovich as much as Jewish litany – but even at 24, Lennie knew how to stamp himself on his music, and this un-brassy performance did him proud.

Then came Beethoven. Oh dear. The Adams had already flagged up Dudamel’s poor architectural antennae – a mature conductor would surely have held back at the start and given the music the sense of direction it desperately needs – but Slonimsky’s Earbox does not face a different interpretation every month in London. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony does. Despite some lovely woodwind obbligatos, Dudamel’s performance lurched and jerked its way through the first movement, ratcheting up every crescendo and diminuendo. Sudden changes of gear upset the basic pulse – though strangely there was no differentiation when it was really needed, between the Scherzo’s main material and the trio. The finale was hectic and shrill.

That’s the Dudamel deal. LA has its messianic audience-puller, so it doesn’t really matter that its Beethoven is run-of-the-mill. Does it? ()

3 star rating
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