Monday, July 23 , 2018, 3:23 am | Fair 68º


L.A. Philharmonic Brings Fresh Sound to Granada

The world-class orchestra presents an evening of excellence

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, a longtime and cherished visitor to Santa Barbara, brought a fresh spring program to the Granada on Saturday night.

Of the three selections, two were bracing and less frequently heard works: Zoltan Kodaly’s Concerto for Orchestra and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major. The other piece was Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major, given an effective reading by young Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein. Austrian conductor Hans Graf was a commanding presence on the podium.

The Community Arts Music Association has a long and rich history with the L.A. Phil and presented the concert as part of its International Series. With so many arts organizations suffering cutbacks and lowered expectations, it was good to attend a full-on concert of this kind, at the luxurious Granada Theatre.

The program opened with Kodaly’s Concerto for Orchestra, which debuted in 1940, three years before fellow Hungarian Bela Bartok’s work with the identical title. The Bartok has sometimes overshadowed the Kodaly, which was written for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Frederick Stock.

As with much Central and Eastern European music, the work is laden with folk influences. But there is much more to it, including a haunting passage with the orchestra’s fine cello section. The Hungarian spoken language is not Slavic; it is unique among European tongues as belonging to the Finno-Ugric language family. Scholars have noted that Kodaly’s music reflects that linguistic heritage. The work also displays Kodaly’s roots in the Baroque period.

The concert’s second half was given over to Dvorak’s magnificent Eighth Symphony, which is Slavic throughout. Perhaps because it is not played nearly as often as Dvorak’s Seventh, New World, it is especially pleasing. Dvorak wrote it at the peak of his powers, glorying in his native land (now the Czech Republic) and its medieval treasure of a city, Prague. Dvorak’s music also expresses, as always, his basically happy and generous nature.

Scheduled between the two large orchestral works was the Liszt piano concerto, a Hungarian staple. Gerstein holds many honors, including first prize at the 2001 Artur Rubenstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv and his selection as Carnegie Hall’s “Rising Star” in the 2005-06 season. His playing of the Lizst was eloquent, with the powerhouse technique so essential in this showy work.

No one wrote more pyrotechnics for the piano than Liszt. He had, by contemporary accounts, an astonishing physical presence at the keyboard. His hand span was immense, and his performances drew adoring crowds. Pianist Leanne Rees once said that Liszt’s music demands much from a performer because the composer was so formidable as a performer. Gerstein was certainly up to the task, and the thundering climax of the concerto earned him a standing ovation.

The L.A. Phil is a treasure, and it will be interesting to watch its progress starting in October. Its esteemed conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, has officially resigned to devote more time to composition. Its new, very young Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, will take the podium starting with the fall season.

Considering this orchestra’s dynamic hometown, and its Frank Gehry-designed venue at Walt Disney Concert Hall, more innovations and continued excellence are to be expected.

The Phil also plays at the Hollywood Bowl for its summer season. Santa Barbara undoubtedly will continue to play host to this world-class orchestra whenever it cares to visit.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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