The Los Angeles Philharmonic brought an inspired -- you might even say brave -- program to the Kenendy Center Tuesday night and made every note of it count.
Instead of picking the usual crowd-pleasing stuff to go with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, as touring orchestras are apt to do, the Philharmonic's celebrated young music director, Gustavo Dudamel, chose a challenging score that divided listeners when it was first heard in 1990 and may divide them still -- John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1.
This pairing resulted in all sorts of fascinating, riveting resonances that helped to make the concert, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, one of the season's highlights.
Putting these particular pieces by Tchaikovsky and Corigliano together could not help make a statement. It wasn't just the fact that two gay composers shared the program (some folks in Putinized Russia have lately tried straightening Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation, but they needn't be taken seriously). What made the juxtaposition so provocative was the way it drew both works closer together.
Corigliano's shattering symphony captures his reaction to the AIDS crisis in those early years when gay men kept dying -- including several of the composer's friends -- and so few people seemed to care. The first movement's subtitle, "Of Rage and Remembrance," sums up the mood of those horrible days with particular impact.
Using extraordinary subtlety, Corigliano commemorates those he lost to the disease, most poignantly through references to the bittersweet Albeniz/Godowsky "Tango" that a pianist friend had often played. Heard offstage, weaving in and out of the orchestral fabric, that keyboard piece never fails to move me (it was delivered elegantly by Joanne Pearce Martin here).
By writing something so personal, Corigliano managed to compose something universal. That "Tango," for example, seems to me an ideal symbol for any endearing little thing we might recall and hang onto when thinking of those no longer with us, whatever the cause of their passing.
Dudamel clearly connected to the deep core of this symphony and drew fiercely committed playing from the orchestra.
The strings alternated between steely fire and gentle warmth (cellists Robert deMaine and Ben Hong sculpted the intimate third movement duet with considerable eloquence); the brass and woodwinds offered rich tone and power; the percussion unleashed the score's most explosive effects with admirable precision.
At the time of its premiere, Corigliano's symphony generated a good many complaints. Too blatant, too maudlin, this or that. Some suggested it was so much a product of its time that it would quickly fade from view. Dudamel and his intrepid Philharmonic easily disproved that notion. This bold, brilliant work sounded as relevant and involving as ever.
If, like me, you accept the idea that Tchaikovsky put a whole lot of himself, and not just great melodies and brilliant orchestration, into his last three numbered symphonies and "Manfred," then it's easy to consider the Fifth as personal a statement as the Corigliano work.
The motto theme that runs through the Fifth can be heard as indicative not of some abstract fate, but a private challenge to be faced and conquered, or at least cornered. That challenge could be sexuality, or maybe the pressure to conform.
When Dudamel tore into the most aggressive passages of the first movement I sensed something I never thought of before -- rage, the same intense rage that had been let loose earlier in Corigliano's symphony. I felt I was hearing a Tchaikovsky who sounded furious not at his nature, but at an unwelcoming world, and who grew more confident (or cunning) as each movement unfolded.
I am sure I am reading way too much into all of this, but that's the effect the programming of those two towering symphonies had on me. They seemed to be speaking the same language, uncovering the same visceral level of emotion.
No need to follow me into this exercise in over-analyzing and romanticizing, of course. Anyone content to view Tchaikovsky's Fifth as purely abstract would still surely have been affected by the performance Dudamel whipped up.
The conductor's sense of drama and tension, his willingness to let a phrase get extra breathing room or take on extra expressive import, his keen attention to dynamic contrasts -- all of that paid dividends repeatedly (and reminded me often of a conductor who was a member of the large audience, National Symphony music director Christoph Eschenbach).
Except for some bumpy articulation at the close of the opening movement, the ensemble was in sterling form. The crispness of attack and sheer sonic weight when it came to the score's most violent jolts proved as impressive as the orchestra's nuanced molding of lyrical phrases. Andrew Bain's silken horn solo in the Andante cantabile was a model of poetic phrasing.
There was more Tchaikovsky as an encore -- the Polonaise from "Eugene Onegin." Dudamel kept the reiterative music sounding fresh, thanks to almost magical touches of rubato and dynamic nuance. The Philharmonic, with its woodwinds getting in extra colorful flourishes along the way, once again demonstrated its status as a great American resource.