Much of the month of December at Disney Hall is given over to holiday pop shows, but the L.A. Philharmonic matinee on Sunday, Dec. 17, was the last presentation of serious classical music of the year, and it was a fittingly stirring finale to the orchestra’s wide-ranging adventures over that time.
The guest stars for an afternoon of Mozart and Bruckner were dexterous Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili and the eminent Michael Tilson Thomas, returning to his hometown and the band he used to serve as principal guest conductor in the 1980s. Tilson Thomas was a providential replacement when the originally scheduled conductor, former longtime L.A. Phil music director Zubin Mehta, had to step down after injuring his shoulder — the conducting profession’s dreaded equivalent to a baseball pitcher blowing out an elbow.
Tilson Thomas turned out to be a good choice to take over the four-day program at Disney Hall, which began last Thursday. Not only is the calm, 72-year-old San Francisco Symphony music director less likely to hurt himself than the more animated Mehta but Tilson Thomas also shares with Mehta a longtime affinity for the music of Austrian composers such as W.A. Mozart, Anton Bruckner and especially Gustav Mahler.
Aside from a stage manager who briefly prowled the stage in red, oversize wooden elf shoes, there was no hint of oppressive holiday cheer inside the hall. Disney Hall wasn’t quite sold out, but a large afternoon crowd filled much of the higher balconies.
About three dozen members of L.A. Phil — string, wind and horn musicians, with no percussionists — assembled behind a black, open-top Steinway piano for the first work on the program, Mozart’s idyllic Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488. The women of the orchestra were dressed in formal black blouses and pants or dresses, and the male musicians were similarly outfitted in black jackets and pants with white shirts and a variety of ties (black, white, gray, striped). Conductor Tilson Thomas also wore a black suit and white shirt, with a slate-blue tie.
With everyone else in black, Khatia Buniatishvili stood out like a vintage movie star when she swept onstage in a breathtaking white, floor-length, sleeveless satin gown. The 30-year-old native of Batumi, Georgia, sat down at the Steinway, facing stage left, and Tilson Thomas gently provoked the concerto’s opening allegro. A pastoral, typically lovely Mozartian weaving of string and wind instruments unfolded for a couple minutes before Buniatishvili entered with airy curlicues of piano.
The strings picked up, becoming jauntier and bolder, before subsiding into intimate passages inlaid with Mozart’s fast yet delicate piano filigrees, which Buniatishvili released with a whirring-hummingbird-wing touch. The pianist wasn’t overly theatrical but sometimes, while playing with her left hand, she’d raise her right arm slowly above her head, pausing midair before pouncing catlike on the keys again.
Playing by memory without sheet music, Buniatishvili always maintained a light, veiled touch instead of a bright attack as she spun through Mozart’s cascading melodies. She didn’t seem to favor a heavy, low-end approach, but Amadeus’ playful lark rarely required it. Buniatishvili maintained a somber distance in the slower adagio, a mournful exchange of strings and wind instruments with spare, unflashy piano.
Tilson Thomas was restrained and poised, keeping his hands low and demeanor steady, even as the pace picked up when Buniatishvili plunged right into the allegro assai, the third and closing section of the concerto. The rest of the orchestra gave chase to the pianist’s scampering melodies, and it was about as overtly sweet and joyful as music gets.
After intermission, Tilson Thomas stepped forward to introduce Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, in E major. “We are happy to play this mighty symphony, which has … a complete worldview,” he explained. “In a symphony like this, everything in it is part of an organic whole. … Perhaps in his mind, [Bruckner] was creating a kind of emotional cathedral. … I think of these big symphonies as natural parks,” Tilson Thomas said. He also touched on composer Richard Wagner’s influence on Bruckner’s symphony, which featured four musicians huffing and puffing on rarely heard Wagner tubas.
The four Wagner tuba players were part of a very large horn section, and the roughly 90 members of the orchestra who swarmed the stage for the Seventh Symphony also included multiple percussionists. Bruckner’s work had the grandeur and epic scale of a long sea journey, beginning in the allegro moderato with a brooding simmering of strings that had a lushly romantic, cinematic sweep. Leading a large group of musicians through such an ambitious piece, Tilson Thomas became a little more physically demonstrative but maintained his cool, only spreading his arms wide and outward for the grandest surges of the horns.
Those sumptuous horn blasts were offset by interludes in which flutists Denis Bouriakov and Elise Shope Henry twined together eerily keening melodies against an upwelling of strings, before the adagio culminated with all the musicians onstage building up to a physically exhilarating explosion of sound, pushed along by Joseph Pereira’s prolonged, thunderous timpani rolls.
The horns took on even more prominence in the adagio, the mighty trumpets and trombones giving way to bigger blasts from the various tubas. Yet this section closed with an unexpectedly gentle wallowing of tuba, which faded out in an achingly beautiful golden glow like a burnished sunset. There would be other peaks and valleys in Bruckner’s Seventh, with a majestic retreat of the elephantine horns holding back long enough at times for Burt Hara’s clarinet to wind through. Even with nine basses, the very bottom end wasn’t always deep enough, but the violins, violas and cellos were richly layered.
Tilson Thomas jerked his torso and twisted his hips to wring out even more power from the collective horns for one last triumphant blare during the dramatic finale, and that was it. Despite a standing ovation from at least half the audience, there would be no encore. It was difficult to imagine anything following Bruckner’s mind-clearing climax.
Over the past year at Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, L.A. Philharmonic has tumbled deep into a rabbit hole (appearing with the fearlessly provocative vocalist Barbara Hannigan to debut composer Gerald Barry’s tongue-twisting and brilliantly frenetic operatic reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground), re-established diplomatic relations with John Adams (in a dramatic visual production of Nixon in China) and helped save the planet from a Martian invasion (Annie Gosfield’s persuasively foreboding music for War of the Worlds, even if it was overshadowed by the Industry’s inventive but campy multisite staging). In between, Gustavo Dudamel and L.A. Phil obsessed over Mozart’s final moments, found the connection between Schubert and Mahler, kicked back with Tony Bennett, unlocked all three of Béla Bartók’s knotty piano concertos with daring pianist Yuja Wang, and even inspired a sense of noble rage from mild-mannered Vin Scully during a passionate, politically timely rendition of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait.
In the coming year, L.A. Phil continues its celebration of the Leonard Bernstein centennial, and Dudamel cycles through Robert Schumann’s symphonies. The orchestra also interacts with violinist-conductor Itzhak Perlman, former leader Esa-Pekka Salonen and Irish songwriter Glen Hansard (Once), and hosts recitals by legendary pianists Martha Argerich and Yuja Wang and a visit by Tilson Thomas’ San Francisco Symphony.