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Review: 'Midori Plays Eötvös' flawless but bloodless too

The composer's 'DoReMi' centerpiece saddles the violinist with a work missing his usual sense of sly fun, but conductor Pablo Heras-Casado is inspiring.

January 20, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Peter Eotvos, left, Midori and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado acknowledge the audience after the Peter Eotvos Violin Concerto "DoReMi" written for Midori at Disney Hall on Jan. 18, 2013.
Peter Eotvos, left, Midori and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado acknowledge… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

"Focus on Eötvös," as the Los Angeles Philharmonic titled its concerts last week, wasn't exactly a festival. The focus was, in fact, tight. Only two works by the Hungarian composer were played at Walt Disney Concert Hall, although they were significant.

The opera, "Angels in America," was presented at the Green Umbrella concert on Tuesday. The world premiere of a violin concerto commissioned by the orchestra for Midori was the centerpiece of the L.A. Phil's weekend subscription series. Peter Eötvös is also an excellent conductor, but he left both programs to the exciting young Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado.

Given the neglect in the United States of a major figure on the European avant-garde scene, the week was meant to clear up some of our Eötvös myopia. We'll need, however, additional visits to the musical ophthalmologist. This operation didn't, at least for this Eötvös admirer, entirely succeed.

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The grim "Angels" lacks the great invention found in other Eötvös operas, particularly his "Three Sisters," in which Chekhov's heroines are three countertenors. In "Angels," I missed the overwhelming rambunctiousness of Tony Kushner's epic play.

The new violin concerto is the 69-year-old composer's second. The first, "Seven," had its premiere in 2007, and a terrific new recording by the boisterous violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with Eötvös conducting is quite a roller-coaster ride.

Violin Concerto No. 2 has a cleverer title and starting point than "Seven," which is based on cadenzas. "DoReMi" scrambles the popular violinist's name, and that inspired Eötvös to play around with the first three notes of the scale. He writes in the program that he is particularly interested in re and in having it lean microtonally toward the other two notes to create "immense tension." The theme of the piece, he adds, is simple things.

This is a concerto, neither simple nor tense, that will require more familiarity to hear what is elemental or dramatic. It uses a small string section, full winds and brass, along with three percussionists given lots to do. Eötvös, who has worked substantially with electronics (and who wrote a fantastical electric piano concerto for Pierre-Laurent Aimard a few years ago), chose to have Midori slightly amplified, giving her an artificially metallic sound that enhanced a listener's ability to hear nuance in her playing but robbed her lustrous tone of its physicality.

Heras-Casado surrounded "DoReMi" by two 20th-century Hungarian classics: Zoltán Koldály's "Háry János" Suite and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. In both, there are a luminous orchestral writing and alluring instrumental sound effects.

Eötvös takes this a step further. On first hearing, "DoReMi," which is in three connected sections, seemed more atmosphere than anything else. The orchestra is always doing something interesting but seldom anything dramatic. The fleet measures go by barely grasped. The microtonal ones, where Eötvös enters into an acoustically soupy never-never land, are a woozy treat for the ear.

Midori played difficult but seldom memorable passagework with passionate concentration and what appeared to be flawless technique. She was serious. She sounded great. She did not, though, seem to have much fun. There was little of Eötvös' sly side.

Interestingly, for her next two performances, Midori will give the European premiere in Leipzig, Germany, with former Los Angeles Opera music director Kent Nagano, and the British premiere this summer at the London Proms with L.A. Phil laureate conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Even so, Heras-Casado, who has recently become principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York, expertly held his own. He can be both understated and scintillating, a special trait. He focused on detail and color in the Eötvös. "Háry János" was full of bright spirit, along with spit and polish.

Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is an L.A. Phil specialty, and Heras-Casado's performance was meticulous. Like Pierre Boulez (a mentor), he conducts without a baton, and he has Boulez-like control of balance and rhythmic point. He dazzles without calling attention to himself.

What he did call attention to was the L.A. Phil. The Concerto for Orchestra is an orchestral showpiece, and the playing, section-to-section and individual-to-individual, was sophisticated, secure and unbeatable.


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