The worst was best at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Thursday night when Mark Elder made his debut conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The 37-year-old music director of the English National Opera devoted the first half of his program to the lofty rhetoric of Beethoven--the "Fidelio" overture serving as a prelude to the Fourth Piano Concerto with Krystian Zimerman as soloist. Here there were troubles.
In the second half, Elder turned to the secondhand slush-pump sentiment of Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony. Here there was something akin to splendor.
In the Beethoven overture, Elder served instant notice that he does not belong to the modern whippersnapper school that values speed and precision over pathos. In fact, he seemed to strive for the spacious, indulgent, heroic approach of a Furtwaengler or, if you will, a Reginald Goodall. Unfortunately, what should have been monumental ended up sounding mannered.
The British maestro enforced tempos so slow that the thread of musical thought threatened to unwind. He favored accents so heavy that the melodic flow threatened to stop. He lingered over Luftpausen so extended that the structural fabric threatened to rip. One had to admire his daring and, in this instance, regret his miscalculation.
One also had to regret the ragged playing he drew from an orchestra that has been stumbling too long behind a disconcerting parade of guest conductors.
The intentions of soloist and conductor were, no doubt, equally noble in the concerto. Immensely talented and, at 28, refreshingly independent in interpretive spirit, Zimerman chose to seek out the Mozartean elements of Beethoven's past rather than the romantic impulses that would mark his future. The Polish pianist wanted, no doubt, to savor transparency, lyricism and delicacy wherever possible.
The approach was eminently defensible. The execution, unfortunately, veered dangerously toward the precious.
Zimerman's gentle playing was sometimes exquisite, sometimes just wispy and blurry. His rhythmic definition was, to say the least, loose, and his accuracy quotient moderate. Elder and the orchestra provided erratic support.
One returned after intermission with a certain amount of misgiving. Even the greatest conductors and the greatest orchestras find it difficult to validate the push-button poignance and the sprawling, fuzzy bombast of the Rachmaninoff Third. Elder and the Philharmonic couldn't make the tawdry sound eloquent. But, wonder of wonders, they did meet the big, splashy challenge with fervor, conviction and clarity.
They did bathe the cliches in brilliant sound. They did keep things moving, logically and propulsively. They did bring crisp definition to the best, or at least most piquant, passages in the work: the contrapuntal explorations of the allegro finale.
The concert, incidentally, was well subscribed but, as is often the case these days, poorly attended. Thursday-night magnetism seems to be fading at the music-directorless Music Center.
The program was dedicated to the memory of Frank Granato, who died Sunday. He had been a member of the Philharmonic bass section since 1951.