Even at the Hollywood Bowl, classical music rarely gets showier than it did July 28, when the Israeli percussion duo PercaDu, consisting of Tomer Yariv and Adi Morag (both born in 1976), joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic under guest conductor Marin Alsop in a performance of “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!” by locally based Israeli composer Avner Dorman.
The work — commissioned for PercaDu, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta, and first performed in 2006 — is a concerto for twin percussion batteries and orchestra in three movements in which the soloists wage cacophonous battle on marimbas, vibraphones, wind chimes, tom-toms and rock ’n’ roll drum kits.
At 34, Dorman is already a prolific composer with a rising reputation: “Spices” had its American premiere in March, with PercaDu accompanied by the New York Philharmonic and Mehta. But this work proved disappointing, its catchy title its most original attribute. The score, alas, is a pastiche of kitsch, with a first movement (“Spices”) that is — surprise, surprise — vaguely Arabic-sounding. “Perfumes,” by contrast, too clearly bears the stamp of the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, with a dash of klezmer inflection to distinguish it. And the finale — in which Yariv and Morag seemed to be communicating something along the lines of, “We’re hot, and we know it” — suggests nothing so much as the driving themes characteristic of 1970s television cop shows.
Yet the reception it received from the thousands in attendance at the Bowl was ecstatic. An encore, performed by PercaDu alone, inevitably followed, but with odd results. First, a Bach prelude was attempted, then quickly aborted. The duo tried again, and failed again. A flashy arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” followed. But it remained unclear whether PercaDu had staged the prelude as shtick, for no other reason than to demonstrate the pair’s virtuosity in the “Bumblebee, ” or whether Yariv and Morag really had choked on the precision Bach required. In any event, the duo’s “Bumblebee” was devoid of any musical value. It existed purely as sideshow entertainment, with Yariv and Morag fervidly running about the stage — playing faster, louder — in mock competition with each other.
The concert was anchored by the work of another Jewish composer: Gustav Mahler, whose Symphony No. 5 was the evening’s main event. Mahler expanded symphonic form to its very limits — in terms of both the forces required to play his music and the duration of those pieces. Weaving his works’ disparate elements into a cohesive whole remains among music’s great challenges.
Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony and the first woman to head a major American orchestra, brought earnestness to her task, but not much gravity or heart. Under her, Mahler’s complex architecture felt disconnected; the score was something to be endured rather than savored. Things improved somewhat in the third movement, the Scherzo, but only in the famous Adagietto (used to great effect in Luchino Visconti’s film “Death in Venice”) did some sort of magic occur. The danger lies in milking this delicate, lachrymose music. Alsop avoided that pitfall and instead offered it simply and unaffectedly, allowing it to speak for itself as the Bowl audience held its collective breath.
She returned to the Bowl on July 30, again to lead the Philharmonic, this time in Dvorak and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, the latter featuring Israeli-American fiddler Gil Shaham. Alsop seemed more at ease than she had at the beginning of the week, her stiff account of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in C (Op. 46/No. 1) notwithstanding. And if she wasn’t exactly loose, she seemed more relaxed.
Shaham, born in America to Israeli parents, maintains strong ties to the Land of Milk and Honey, appearing in concert there regularly. He is among the world’s great violinists, his impressive technical mastery always in the service of eloquent interpretation. Here, long lines were spun without obvious effort in a tone of unforced beauty, his sensitive phrasing by turns poised, elegant, touching and stylish.
His strength lies not in an Olympian approach to music-making, but rather in his remarkably human sound. It’s the sort of talent those not paying full attention might take for granted but which is in many ways the highest form of artistry. Alsop and the Philharmonic supported him ideally, withholding overly grand gestures and allowing this reticent virtuoso to be the star.
Dvorak’s ebullient Symphony No. 8, which concluded the program and the week, received what in Alsop’s hands passed for a joyous account. She is not the most unbuttoned conductor, and free-spiritedness seems to come hard for her. I couldn’t help but contrast this performance (heard backstage, in full disclosure) with one the Philharmonic gave a few seasons ago at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, conducted by David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and, incidentally, Shaham’s brother-in-law. That performance was buoyancy itself. This one emerged more earthbound, though Alsop’s commitment could not be denied. More important, her low-key manner in a work that could have absorbed more personality was all the more welcome after the empty rhetoric of Dorman’s piece for PercaDu.
David Mermelstein writes about classical music for various print and Web publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and MusicalAmerica.com.
Watch a clip from PercaDu’s recent Hollywood Bowl performance: