In the good old days--at least we thought they were good--the world's finest instrumentalists and singers seemed content to be soloists. Now everyone wants to be a conductor. Ambitious intentions, unfortunately, do not ensure imposing achievements.
Daniel Barenboim made the transition from keyboard to podium with ease. Christoph Eschenbach did not.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, that most poignant and intelligent of baritones, became a prissy schoolmaster when he took up the baton. Placido Domingo has yet to prove that his prowess in the pit can come within hailing distance of his prowess on the stage.
Although Mstislav Rostropovich is one of the greatest cellists of the day--possibly the greatest--he remains a conductor with many, many peers. Yehudi Menuhin the maestro makes one long for Yehudi Menuhin the fiddler--even in his declining years.
And now, Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Local audiences have been celebrating his masterful pianism for nearly three decades. But two years ago he passed through town as conductor pro tem of the London Philharmonia. And Thursday night he returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to begin a two-week stint as guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The man obviously is serious about his dual career. He also may be one of the few who succeeds in this precarious juggling act.
At this juncture, he does not look like a natural on the podium. The left hand does not always seem to know what the left hand should be doing. The gestures tend to be finicky, as if every phrase must be sculpted in the air for the benefit of the innocent players--or, perish the ignoble thought--for the benefit of the innocent audience.
Ashkenazy sometimes loses sight of the long line while exploring detours or examining details. The tone he coaxes from our Philharmonic tends to be lean, even in rapturous fortissimos, and one can't quite be sure if this is a matter of preference or of technical default.
There can be no question, however, that he remains an artist with arresting interpretive ideas. Despite some mechanical problems, he makes music with an orchestra much as he makes music with a piano: with taste that precludes flamboyance for its own sake, with remarkable sensitivity for expressive nuances, with a pervasive concern for mood definition and for subtle dynamic accents.
In "Don Quixote," which opened the program, he eschewed the lush textures and splashy effects favored by many a Straussian. Instead, he enforced unexpected lightness and chamber-music transparency. The inherent drama--and vulgarity--of the tone poem may have suffered as a result; the inherent pathos--and refinement--certainly did not.
Ronald Leonard, principal cellist of the Philharmonic, played the title role with dauntless poise, purity and expressive affect. Other protagonists bring a heavier, fatter, darker sound to this challenge, but few conquer it with such elegance. Heiichiro Ohyama, the principal violist, mustered the treaties and benedictions of Sancho Panza with complementary elan.
After intermission, Ashkenazy sampled elusive fragrances of turn-of-the-century France.
In Faure's incidental music for "Pelleas et Melisande," he minimized the cloying rhetoric by stressing grace, clarity and pianissimo sensuality. In Debussy's "La Mer," already one of his specialties, he kept banality at bay by concentrating on such honest virtues as propulsion, tension and a remarkably broad, ever-changing scheme of color.
He dealt, persuasively, with waves rather than mist. The water was warm.