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Brahms Unbound Rises with Glorious Percussion

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Tuesday, May 24, 2011, at 06:24PM
Gustavo Dudamel Anna Hult

Gustavo Dudamel

Brahms Unbound. It has a nice ring to it. As the moniker for this LA Philharmonic series that packages the German Romantic with contemporary composers, it covers the territory well.

But you certainly wouldn’t think that lovable, lyrical, burnished Brahms could be outdone by a wild and woolly 21st-century Russian, one whose music is not the kind of thing you leave the hall humming.

Well, think again.

For good reason, the sold-out Disney Hall audience sat riveted for Glorious Percussion—an imposing work by the revered Sofia Gubaidulina—as played by our fiercely involved resident band under its inspired leader Gustavo Dudamel.

But they did so not just because both the ear and the eye were engaged – what with soloists for five bass drums and a whole batterie of percussion instruments fronting the orchestra – but because the 37-minute piece was at once an adventure in unalloyed primitivism and dense sophistication.

The sounds, per se, many of them realized by such exotica as darabuka and agogo, conjured everything that is mystical at its simplest yet internally structured at its most complex.

The 80-year-old Gubaidulina (pronounced goo-bye-DO-lina), a fearless composer if there ever was one, entrusts the center of her work to five peerless percussionists who not only held us rapt but gained so much star power from it in six other cities, that the quintet formed an ensemble called, what else? – Glorious Percussion.

(They actually call to mind another glittering Philharmonic event, Pierre Boulez’ Sur Incises, that had three each of stellar pianists, harpists, percussionists – placed on individually lit pedestals before the orchestra -- led by the 85-year-old composer himself several months ago at the Fleischmann tribute concert. Talk about atmosphere.)

So there they were, these masters of percussion, exploring the universe with all kinds of whiz-bang playfulness and arcane attunements from a single rattle sound to silence, to rippling delicacy and a whole spectrum of massed decibels (but none of them assaultive). The orchestra chimed in with what seemed like a battalion of dark low strings and brass. Right from the beginning came a dialogue between gongs and tubas.

Robyn Schulkowsky, the danciest, most animated and exhibitionistic xylophonist you’re likely to see, bounded from station to station, while the others also tapped out, shook, jiggled and thumped their various parts with dexterous abandon, freely improvising but always following noted dictates.

Did the sight inform the sound? Would there have been the same impact with audio alone? No easy answers – except to say that the air of excitement and novelty kept my ears pricked, my eyes focused.

And that, friends, is the antithesis of comforting old Brahms. Yes, it feels good to sit back and let the regularized structures with their sweeping themes wash over you, as they did when Dudamel and the orchestra took up the Second Symphony. Not a measure did they leave uninflected or unremarked upon. Tender passions, sorrowful comment, lilting phrases and robustly demanding rhythms all came together in a unity of spirit.

The organizing principle of Brahms Unbound -- traditional symphonies paired with new music that mines unexplored vistas – works. Even though you can guess which of this concert’s two pieces I’m humming right now…

Note: Two more programs in this series follow, closing out the Disney season June 5.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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