Thursday night, Lina González-Granados became the second of the four young conductors making their harrowing Los Angeles Philharmonic debuts at the Hollywood Bowl this month. They are harrowing in no small part because of the mere single rehearsal that same morning. With no hope for coaxing finesse, most debutants go in for making a big splash in the big outdoors with big effects. González-Granados proved no exception, although she also happened to be very good at that.
Then again, a morning rehearsal may have felt like a small luxury to the 36-year-old conductor from Cali, Colombia, who has been an assistant conductor to Riccardo Muti at the Chicago Symphony since February 2020. During a CSO dress rehearsal in June, Muti tested positive for COVID-19, which required González-Granados to immediately take over and run through Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for the evening concert, leaving her to also conduct Brahms’ First Symphony cold that night. An impressed orchestra extended her position, which was supposed to end that month, for another season.
Then again, González-Granados may already have her foot out the CSO door. Her Bowl concert will be followed by an even more decisive debut next month, as she begins her new post as Los Angeles Opera’s resident conductor by leading “Lucia di Lammermoor” for the company’s opening night. In November, González-Granados will make her third local debut, this time with the Pasadena Symphony, which is currently trying out conductors to fill the orchestra’s music director vacancy.
González-Granados, in fact, seemed already right at home at the Bowl. She opened with Nina Shekhar’s “Lumina,” a short sunburst of a piece, which was written while the composer was a student at USC. The school’s Thornton Symphony gave the premiere in 2020 (a fact curiously left out of the Bowl program notes, for those who took the trouble to hunt them down on their cellphones). That was followed by Paganini’s “Sonata per la Grand Viola,” a small concerto that featured L.A. Phil principal violist Teng Li as soloist. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” after intermission, served to showcase the L.A. Phil’s first associate concertmaster, Nathan Cole.
Shekhar’s “Lumina” has been getting a lot of attention. The Minnesota Orchestra performed it in May. A week later the New York Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden added “Lumina” to a program of Beethoven and Mozart and included the piece on the orchestra’s tours to Germany and Vail, Colo.
The 11-minute score, inspired by classic Indian music, begins like a raga finding its tones and shortly explodes like an orchestral supernova in a wash of microtones before returning to its quiet origins. Shekhar says in a video she made for the New York Philharmonic that she feels the need to focus our attention, to help us listen to our environment and honor silence. Yet despite a reasonably straightforward performance, little of that proved suitable for the Bowl.
Opening silences were filled by picnickers packing up and aircrafts flying overhead. The great outburst, loudly amplified, somehow came out as a Hollywood-ish climax. The YouTube and Soundcloud recordings Shekhar links to on her website fill in the nuances lost outdoors.
The Paganini piece, however, is Bowl catnip. Shaped sort of like an aria from an Italian opera from 1834 (Paganini happened to write this the same year as the “Lucia” González-Granados will conduct in September), it begins with a recitative-like introduction followed by a song-like central section that leads to a propulsive theme and variations. At 12 minutes, the score is aria length. The orchestra has little to do. The viola part explores not only the instrument’s rich low register, but in the variations goes dazzlingly high with stratospheric harmonics.
Li made a meal of it. Her viola — starkly expressive in the recitative, rich and resonant in the song and dazzlingly virtuosic in the variations — might have been a superhuman mezzo-soprano. The Sonata was written near the end of Paganini’s life, when, in poor health, he had to give up concertizing as the world’s most brilliant violinist, and is modest in comparison with his violin concertos and solo violin pieces. It is little heard or recorded. This was the L.A. Phil’s first performance of it. I don’t imagine all that many other major orchestras have bothered with it. They should. That is if they can find their own Li.
González-Granados’ official title in Chicago is the somewhat demeaning Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice. Her “Scheherazade” was not the work of an apprentice, but it was Solti-like. She went in for making stentorian statements. The Russians tend to treat the Sultan’s brassy theme as the mysteriously ominous presence of the ruler, Shahryar, in “One Thousand and One Nights,” the inspiration for Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. González-Granados made it simply a show of raw power, an aural force to glue you to your seat (or bench).
Nevertheless, the many solo instrumental passages, particularly Cole’s fanciful realization of Scheherazade’s seductive violin interjections and Burt Hara’s glorious clarinet ruminations, were individual triumphs. Several principal players are on vacation, and that excitingly allowed other players their moments to shine. Still, this “Scheherazade” came on strong and pretty much stayed that way.
A well-rehearsed “Lucia,” which will have six performances, should present a far fuller picture of González-Granados’ artistry. And while she’s at it, if she feels this strongly about Rimsky-Korsakov, how about pitching one of his wondrous yet neglected operas to L.A. Opera?