Friday night marked exactly 100 years since the Los Angeles Philharmonic first played in Santa Barbara at the long gone Potter Theatre, an anniversary the prestigious orchestra commemorated by returning to Santa Barbara for another stirring concert.
The orchestra performed for a crowded house at the Granada Theatre, where it last came to town in 2018. Showcasing two forty-minute pieces and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, who will later this year conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in performances at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the LA Phil received the most rousing reception yet in the 2020 season of CAMA’s International Series, of which Friday’s concert was the second.
It’s still early in the season, but that’s not damning with faint praise. After all, it’s not at every classical concert that the music blows someone in the audience away to the point they just forget about the event’s genteel atmosphere and shout “Woohoo!” at the top of their lungs. The LA Phil made that happen.
That exclamation came at the very end of the show, as the orchestra closed its performance with Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95.” As the orchestra approached the piece’s triumphant, bombastic conclusion with clipped, separated notes filled with string section gusto, one would have expected one of those notes to end the piece and show with a knock-out punch. It certainly wouldn’t have been out of character with the Dvorjak work’s largely aggressive character.
Just as it looked like that’s how it would end, the full orchestra attacked another note. The strings played it clipped and quickly fell silent, but the woodwinds carried it on and gradually diminished its volume. As the airy sound of the woodwind section gently faded into the ceiling of the Granada everything fell silent, but Mr. Dudamel stood frozen in a pose like he was about to make some grand gesture upon which the orchestra would erupt into another passage. Silence befell the audience as it tried to figure out whether that was the end or if Mr. Dudamel was toying with them. Following a long, quiet pause, one guy on the balcony had the right idea, and then it came: “Woohoo!,” followed by a standing ovation.
The LA Phil picked the pieces for both halves of the concert well, each ending on notes that struck the audience members between the eyes. Holistically, the second half was by far superior. The concert’s first half consisted of American composer Charles Ives’ “Symphony No. 2,” a five-movement piece with a great deal of interplay between the string and woodwinds. It contained many elongated passages from the former, which gave the number a feeling that was mostly swooning. The abundance of flowing strings played simultaneously made one recall the number’s pretty wash of sound more than any of its melodies. However, it did end with a shrill, screeching note from one of the flutes that caused a ripple of appreciation to travel through the audience, getting “wows” from several of the listeners.
When the concert’s second half started after intermission, it was immediately clear it would be far different from the first. Whereas the Ives piece had a far more restrained character and one had to listen a bit harder to detect what emotions it was attempting to convey, the Dvorjak symphony stated its emotions outright. It conveyed menace, sadness, and triumph throughout its four movements and did so with bombast. That’s not to say that it didn’t have its more finessed moments however, but when they came they contained catchy melodic hooks that demanded the listeners attention. For the layperson, the combination of sheer power and greater melody made the Dvorjak piece the easy favorite.
While the concert may have been lopsided in terms of entertainment value, hearing the LA Phil competently play Charles Ives is no price to pay at all when followed up by the barn burner Dvorjak symphony. Whatever else ends up in the program for its 200th anniversary concert in Santa Barbara come 2120, the latter should definitely be included. However, getting that lineup of the LA Phil to play it better than the current lineup did Friday night may be a tall order to fill.