Given all the attention surrounding L.A. Philharmonic’s 100th-anniversary season, a matinee concert at Disney Hall on Saturday afternoon, March 9, appeared to be a minor event in the grand scheme of things.
There was no orchestra or conductor. Instead, there was just a single violinist and a pianist performing a chamber-music program of fairly traditional sonatas, in contrast to the dozens of flashy, high-profile world premieres of adventurous new works L.A. Phil has presented since the centenary season began last fall.
But the Saturday-afternoon concert represented a relatively rare chance to hear legendary German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who hadn’t appeared locally in years. Backed by her longtime accompanist, American pianist Lambert Orkis, Mutter engaged in a seemingly innocuous program of violin sonatas that ultimately proved to be unexpectedly stirring and poignantly affecting.
It must have been a rough week for the star violinist. She and Orkis were originally scheduled to perform at Disney Hall on Wednesday evening, March 6, but the concert was postponed until Saturday after Mutter came down with the flu. On top of that, Mutter was mourning her former husband André Previn, the celebrated composer and former music director of L.A. Philharmonic, who died in New York City on Thursday, Feb. 28. Although the couple divorced in 2006, they reportedly remained close friends and continued to work together for many years.
The mostly bare stage at Disney Hall looked darker than usual, especially for a matinee, when Mutter and a black-suited Orkis entered from stage right. The violinist was ensconced in a tight, black sleeveless, floor-length gown whose skirt was adorned with a pattern of red roses. When Mutter shuffled across the stage, the flowers swept along with her so that it appeared as if she was walking on a carpet of roses.
Mutter appeared impatient as she and Orkis set into W.A. Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E minor, K. 304. She repeatedly rubbed and stretched her left wrist between movements trying to get loose. The duo’s unison was just a hair off in this first piece. Orkis was a little ham-handed in a couple places, but the expressive violinist’s lyrical phrasing was perfectly suited for Mozart’s winsome melodies. She and Orkis were much more solid on the next selection, Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor. Here, Mutter really began to demonstrate her famously eloquent touch and sense of nuance. On the higher parts especially, she really made her violin sing as she wrung out the most exquisite tones from her instrument.
The next piece, Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, was a little more meandering throughout its three sections, but Mutter’s playing was again soulful and intuitive. By now, Orkis had settled down and was in empathetic communication with Mutter, and their ongoing musical dialogue was shaped with stirring contrasts in dynamics and volume. By the end of the sonata, Mutter had worked up some impressively dazzling speed while still maintaining a sensitive attack. Even more impressive, she performed the entire concert without needing a single scrap of sheet music, similar to how Gustavo Dudamel conducted Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony from memory in the same room two nights earlier, on Thursday, March 7.
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Without a full orchestra and with the rear section behind the stage empty due to the last-minute rescheduling, Disney Hall felt a little more somber than usual, as if the adults in charge were away for the day. In a few hours, though, the place would fill up again when Dudamel and L.A. Phil returned to reprise the Mahler symphony alongside Yuja Wang’s daring rendition of the new John Adams piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? There was still a large crowd for Mutter and Orkis’ afternoon performance, although the audience’s collective mood was muted for the first half of the program. Even with the sleepy vibe, the sound and performance were impressive. There’s nothing quite like lolling away a few hours inside the comforting, warm wooden belly of the Disney Hall leviathan, where every sound — including, alas, each accidental dropping of shoes and muffled cough by the crowd — resonates so richly and deeply.
After intermission, Mutter and her roses swept back onstage as Orkis genially embarked on another Mozart piece, Violin Sonata in B-flat major, K. 454. This sonata was even lovelier than the first, as the violinist and pianist crafted a dreamy spell that was unabashedly pretty. The next work, Francis Poulenc’s Violin Sonata, was by far the darkest and heaviest piece on the program. The sonata was immediately urgent and torrid in contrast to the more lighthearted sonatas. Mutter revealed her new-music and experimental tendencies when she slid her violin’s bow to create some strange, smeary washes of chords. The room felt like an intimate late-night cabaret as Mutter and Orkis enacted Poulenc’s spare but spacy lines, especially during the entrancing intermezzo. The crowd woke up after this stormy exchange and demanded two encores.
The first encore, Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of Arthur Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba, was another merry showcase of Mutter and Orkis’ more playful side. The violinist whipped through the short, fast, slip-sliding tune with a casual aplomb that was delightful and unerring. But it was the second encore, a version of André Previn’s “Song,” from Tango Song and Dance, that proved to be the most emotional piece of the afternoon. Previn composed the 1997 work specifically for Mutter, and in a soft, fragile voice she dedicated its performance to his “eternal memory.” The piece was slow, sad and elegiac and perhaps even sentimental, but it was somberly moving and took on even greater emotional heft in Mutter’s caring and attentive hands.
The strangely sad mood continued even after the official concert ended. Deep on the lowest levels of the Disney Hall parking lot, a solitary pigeon wandered among the concrete parking spaces, seemingly lost and far from any possible escape to the fresh air several stories above. Across the street, meanwhile, artist-musician Quintron’s Weather Warlock — an analog synthesizer that emits sounds based on weather conditions — groaned and moaned and made eerily lonely sounds in the plaza at MOCA as part of its final weekend as an installation at the “One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art” group show. By the end of the day, Disney Hall would resound again with John Adams’ devilish riffing and Mahler’s stirring First Symphony. But for this ephemeral moment in time, Mutter and Orkis’ tranquil, lulling interplay sent out ripples of overt beauty and submerged emotion that fittingly matched the gray skies and the mournful void left by Previn’s death.