The program was a healthy mix of contemporary and standard repertoire, and consisted of just two substantial works: American composer John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Both served as expansive showcases for the LA Phil, each in their distinctive ways.
The Corigliano dates from 1988, and is a memorial to the victims of AIDS. In taking this modern epidemic as his starting point, Corigliano raised the bar for himself: his symphony is Mahleresque in scope, full of gravity, anguish, pathos and much more. An offstage piano, playing a snippet of a tango by Isaac Albéniz, gives a wistful sense of past happiness. A tarantella movement is grotesquely fragmented. A lyrical cello solo that turns into a cello duet is a deeply heartfelt passage. And a pounding timpani drum recalls (to my mind, at least), Carl Ruggles’ orchestral essay Sun-Treader.
In these and other passages, Corigliano displays his complete mastery of the symphony orchestra as a musical instrument. However, there were times when his orchestral ideas seem to become a preoccupation – as if he believes that a striking instrumental colour or effect will achieve more than it does. For example, the band of mandolins at the edge of the orchestra looked more intriguing than they sounded. And the climax of the piece is a thunderous outburst from the whole orchestra – the percussion section, especially. I’m sure it was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard an orchestra make in Roy Thomson Hall – but it felt like the orchestral equivalent of screaming, rather than a solid musical gesture.
Tchaikovsky can pack a punch, too – especially when played by the LA Phil. Dudamel built up his interpretation of the Fifth Symphony carefully, from an understated opening, to big waves of sound. In the hands of “the Dude,” the orchestra became one grand and glorious instrument, bursting with expression.
After a brilliant and powerful final movement, I didn’t believe the players would have the energy left for an encore. But they put my expectations to shame with a rousing “Polonaise” from Eugene Onegin.
Only time will tell, but the LA Phil’s stop-over at Roy Thomson may stand as the best orchestral concert of 2014 in Toronto.
© Colin Eatock 2014