Saturday, April 08, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic Rachs Out

HA! I knew somebody else out there wouldn't be able to resist that pun! Here's a review of PJ's concert from the Los Angeles Daily News (4/8/06) by David Mermelstein:
Must have been all that Minimalism. How else to explain the Los Angeles Philharmonic's decision to veer in the opposite direction and devote an entire program to the lush strains of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Thirty years ago, a bill containing the composer's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Second Symphony would have been standard fare. But these days, at least with this orchestra, it's practically a rediscovery.

How lucky, then, that the Philharmonic's music director, Esa- Pekka Salonen, is in Paris leading the premiere of compatriot Kaija Saariaho's latest opera, and that Paavo Jarvi, music director of the Cincinnati Orchestra, was on the podium in his stead. For Jarvi, a native of Estonia, clearly relishes Rachmaninoff's ripe scores.

In the tender Vocalise, which opened the program, the conductor opted for quiet reflection over self-indulgence, so much so that when he heightened intensity even slightly, it seemed a major mood shift.

Rachmaninoff's barnstorming Piano Concerto No. 2 might have been tour de force. But the originally scheduled pianist, Helene Grimaud, bowed out due to illness. And though her replacement, Andre Watts, should have managed this music handily, he proved instead enormously disappointing.

From the concerto's memorable opening chords, which Watts delivered clumsily, the pianist seemed out of sorts, his performance lugubrious and lacking color. And there was, unfortunately, little improvement as the work progressed.

Jarvi, too, was anything but a firebrand, but at least he and the orchestra turned their slow tempos stately.

Indeed, Watts' careful and uninflected playing was disconcerting in the extreme, perhaps a result of his not expecting to be in L.A. performing this piece.

He sounded better in the slow second movement than elsewhere, but the glory there really belonged to flutist Anne Diener Zentner and clarinetist Lorin Levee, both producing lovely phrases.

No tentativeness tainted the program's second half, though, with Jarvi leading the orchestra in an extraordinary account of the Second Symphony. The Philharmonic has a tradition of playing this work well, and longtime concertgoers will recall superb performances of it during Andre Previn's directorship in the mid- to late 1980s.

Jarvi's reading was richly detailed and lushly textured. More important, he held a listener's interest throughout the work, which is no mean feat in a symphony that can sound turgid in the hands of nonbelievers. This conductor, on the other hand, seemed to have this music in his blood, proving himself a master of moods as he variously shifted the work's tone.

In the second movement, he achieved sweep without sentimentality and coaxed the orchestra to well-calibrated felicities. His judicious employment of dynamics was especially impressive, his brisk pace right and welcome.

In the gushing third movement - in which Levee offered melting clarinet solos - Jarvi wisely opted for restraint, a gently lush approach. Yet emotion was powerfully asserted nonetheless. The finale was one of controlled exuberance, the playing tight, with the strings displaying rare bloom, the concluding measures practically Wagnerian.

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