The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra's residency at the Barbican has been a huge success. Rather than churn out time-honoured family favourite pieces of classical music, the orchestra has seized the opportunity to showcase its prowess in the performance of new music – three European premières including John Adams' powerful passion-oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, as well as Claude Vivier's colourful Zipangu were in the mix. The latter was programmed alongside two better-known, deeply impressionistic works – Debussy's La mer and Stravinsky's Firebird – giving the LA Phil the opportunity to demonstrate its almighty orchestral force.
Claude Vivier is somebody who might fairly be described as an unfairly overlooked composer. Hailing from Canada, he is regarded by some as the finest composer the nation has ever produced. Aspects of Vivier's work certainly seem to have been influenced by the voice of his teacher, Stockhausen, though they maintain a very distinct voice. His compositions are less famous than his untimely passing – he was found stabbed to death in his Paris apartment, the perpetrator having been a male prostitute he had met in a bar earlier in the evening.
Zipangu – a word seemingly onomatopoeic, but in fact the name for Japan in Marco Polo's time – followed the composer's tour around Asia, the colours and sounds providing him with inspiration. Written for string orchestra, the piece draws on extended string-playing techniques, such as scratch tone and natural harmonics; Vivier's oscillation between the two, coupled with the ensemble's much-welcomed "milking-it" attitude, created moments of musical stress followed by relaxation and resolution. A simple, chromatic melody, presented in octaves at the start of the piece, was developed and manipulated dynamically, texturally, and even spatially, and the ensemble brought out its languor highly effectively, whilst also basking in the grittier moments later on. It it perhaps not the finest example of avant-garde composition, but it was executed with aplomb.
Zipangu is more abstractly programmatic than Debussy's La mer. This was the third London performance of the piece in as many weeks, the Brussels Philahrmonic and Philharmonia having provided the others – which serves as testament not only to its popularity, but to the sheer skill of the composer in painting a symphonic portrait of the sea. In saying that, the piece is very difficult to get "just right", as it depends significantly on the fluidity of phrases being passed from one instrumental section to another, and also on having the requisite forces to be able to produce both the raging swells of the waves and the quietest ripples. For me, this was the first performance that wholly successfully navigated its way through the many and varied demands of the score. In particular, the brass section made the end of the first movement, "De l'aube à midi sur la mer", a glorious success, whilst the impish woodwind and violin solos in "Jeux de vagues" gave that movement a delightfully scherzando lilt.
Saving the best till last, though, it was the LA Phil's performance of Stravinsky's The Firebird that stood out above all. As evocative as La mer, but quite different in style, The Firebird was commissioned by the director of the Ballets Russes as the score for a ballet of the same name. That it is written with dancers in mind is abundantly clear – a myriad delicate, chromatic passages are combined with a strong sense of pulse throughout, and moments of sheer noise and pin-drop quietness reflect the drama of the dance.
There are insufficient words to describe how wonderful this performance was: the balance was superb, the ensemble was tight, and the extravagance of the scoring was well and truly expressed, whilst the quieter moments were most sensitively played. There were a number of fabulously triumphal moments for the brass players, but the luxuriant strings and the stupendous timpani also contributed to its success. The impact of the orchestra was such that a handful of audience members applauded at the end of the "Infernal Dance of Kastchei", mistakenly thinking that its soaring climax had brought the concert to an end. The joyous final moments were preceded by an almightily tense and long crescendo, building up the excitement until it was almost unbearable. Seeing the entirety of the vast string section play au talon (at the heel of the bow) was as much a spectacle as the music itself.
All the while, Gustavo Dudamel conducted by heart, meaning he was free to dance on the podium – though without making himself the centre of attention – and pay full attention to the LA Phil's players. Considering how much each of the three composers demanded expressive and dynamic change, this was no mean feat. The Debussy and Stravinsky rank among my favourite orchestral works, and it was a total pleasure to have Dudamel and the LA Phil pull them off perfectly. I think Dudamel was precisely aware of how much credit the orchestra was due, touchingly disappearing into the orchestra to shake hands with players from each section as the audience applauded wildly and at length. Completely and utterly outstanding.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS