The Los Angeles Philharmonic served up another of its ever-inventive creations last week. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel led an inspired pairing of all four Charles Ives symphonies and Antonín Dvořák’s final three.
The overarching theme was the American story: one via a Czech immigrant’s melting pot perspective and the other, an American original’s take on his native land.
The bridge: both composers drew on American musical tradition. Ives’ tonal themes bent hymns, fiddler dances, Stephen Foster tunes and patriotic melodies to his novel (and often fantastical) whim. Dvořák drew on American folk music, which included native and African American songs.
The February 29 performance featured Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” and his Symphony No. 4 paired with Dvořák’s’ “New World” Symphony No. 9.
A curious existential composition
The evening began with Ives’ six-minute-long “The Unanswered Question,” a probe into the existential wonder (and yes, sometimes horror) that is called life. Ives provided cues about how to interpret the work, writing that the composition was a probing of “The Perennial Question of Existence.”
Four flutes, a trumpet and strings are employed, with musicians often situated off-stage, as they were in Disney Hall. Dudamel entered and stood before what seemed to be an invisible orchestra – empty seats filled the stage. The work begins with a twice-repeated thirteen-bar string progression. It sets an ethereal tone, especially given that the lonely-looking conductor appears to direct empty space. It was a compelling sight.
A trumpeter’s insistent question
Cutting into the strings’ ineffable foundation (G major tonal triads that portrayed a kind of equanimity), a solo trumpet poses the five-note “Question.” The woodwinds, thus challenged, attempt to answer the trumpet’s “Question,” as Ives terms it, which is posited seven times during the work.
At first, the flutes offer up thoughtful, nearly muse-like answers – a naive hope that perhaps there actually is an answer to life’s mystery.
Of course, if one ponders life’s essential meaninglessness long enough, one goes a bit batty. That’s precisely what those flutes do, growing downright loony in their knotted and discordant rhythms. In Ives’ take, the woodwinds “realize (their) futility and begin to mock ‘The Question’” before finally giving up.
Look to the strings – look to silence
In composing the work, Ives seems to say: forget about that “Question” (the trumpet) and never mind the woodwind’s inanity in trying to puzzle it out. Instead, he says – look to the strings – which for this work he terms as “Undisturbed Solitude.” Throughout the piece, the strings’ calmly ordered background is a stand-in for “The Silence of the Druids who know, see and hear nothing,” according to his notes.
Indeed, Ives gives that omniscient silence the last word in “The Unanswered Question.” In Disney Hall, the strings’ final note thinned to a gossamer thread; the entire effect was astounding. In the hands of Dudamel and the seemingly invisible L.A. Phil, the piece was realized to perfection.
Ives’ impossibly complex Fourth Symphony
Ives waited a good decade after composing his Third Symphony to follow up with the Fourth. The gap shows, in terms of the composer using the full weight of his maturity and musical explorations. The impossibly complex 30-minute symphony plumbs the depths of Ives’ earlier works, along with various folk tunes, hymns and other novel songs.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale provided the chorus: “‘Watchman Tell Us of the Night,’ set in a polytonal and polyrhythmic radiance, ultimately fading to silence,” according to program notes.
The second movement “loosely follows the plot of Hawthorne’s ‘The Celestial Railroad,’ a satire on American faith in material progress: comfortable train passengers laugh at old-fashioned pilgrims slogging through a swamp on foot.”
So densely complex, the Fourth requires two conductors
All told, Ives employs 30-plus songs and hymns in his masterwork. It’s a polyrhythmic triumph, considered among his greatest achievements. In the hands of Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the piece was a swirl of nearly incomprehensible wonder.
It should be noted that the work’s complexity is so dense that it requires two conductors. The Polish maestro Marta Gardolińska provided the second baton.
A new vista for Dvořák’s “New World”
Like Venice, Italy, which Goethe famously claimed could only be compared to itself, Dvořák’s “New World” symphony similarly astounds. And like Venice, the symphony never grows weary no matter how times it’s listened to – you’ve no doubt had innumerable chances.
The New York Times archly terms it an “overplayed classic.” Well, that’s a New Yorker’s perspective.
In the hands of Dudamel and the L.A. Phil, the work is born anew, the lyricism coaxed to novel lengths without growing unctuous. In these spirited pairs of hands – the stage was buoyant with scores of them – the work’s precision always bends to a tender flourish, and it is tempting to nail the execution with a far cooler interpretation. That never happened.
Observing Gustavo Dudamel
The act of just observing Dudamel is, of course, worth the ticket. His off-script rendition of the “New World” was mesmerizing.
Here’s what’s especially delightful beyond the now-expected finesse and flourish of Dudamel’s small delicate hands: the way the maestro ever-so-briefly pockets his left hand – and sometimes it’s just a hooked thumb that lands in his pocket as he hikes his jacket up to accommodate the motion.
Yes, it’s a quirk, but no doubt a necessary one. For Dudamel, it’s perhaps a comforting gesture, like many idiosyncrasies. But in my writer’s imagination, it’s high unconscious theater – the fact that his right hand can bridle the orchestra on its own, driving it masterfully onward while the left hand sort of chills for a moment.
A sublime conductor-orchestra feedback loop
But who needs hands? At moments during the performance they hung at his side, his head doing the work – his eyes, in fact, directing the L.A. Phil for a particular smattering of notes. The conductor has just that sort of locked-in affinity with his musicians.
And then, arms still at his side, Dudamel’s whole body conducted for spare moments, his assimilation of the memorized music was exactly that complete. I’ve seen Dudamel at work numerous times, the score never failing to wholly possess him as it courses out to the orchestra and then back again in some glorious oceanic feedback loop that only the gods (and such musicians) can fathom.
On Saturday night, the effect electrified the hall.
Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2020-21 season
Top photo courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic