This season the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been doffing its hat to American composers of our century--thanks to a sponsored cue from AT&T.
But the courtesy has hardly represented much risk-taking. No mavericks in the image of Ives or Cage or Conlon Nancarrow have gotten a nod from the Music Center. Rather, we're hearing the school of professorial gentlemen--Pulitzer Prize winners who habitually attached themselves to Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
The late Roger Sessions, an exemplar of the class, had his turn Thursday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion under the guidance of Sir Charles Groves. And, not inappropriately, the Philharmonic unearthed the Brooklyn-born composer's Symphony No. 1--an early and accessible work never performed here before.
Surely there was a purpose in representing Sessions not as an exponent of dissonance, complexity and the 12-tone form--which he later became--but as a Stravinskyan neoclassicist.
Thus could an audience familiar with the jaunty rhythms, clean outline and economic materials of "L'Histoire du Soldat" immediately relate to this E-minor Symphony. Brighter and brassier, perhaps, even more open-faced than the model it resembles, the work is entirely engaging.
One can admire its craft. One can be touched by a wistful Adagio that languishes in faraway, long-lined polytonality and, on this occasion, glory in the orchestra's virtuosic soloists.
Unfortunately, Groves could not advance Sessions' cause too well in the outer movements. These ask for an alertness and energy to which he--head in score--gave a square, perfunctory, flaccid response.
But as accompanist to Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich in Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, Sir Charles rallied to the task. Here the soloist impressed again with his pearly tone and exacting approach. Great care was taken to shine and polish each melodic gem, resulting in a performance of immaculate clarity.
Bishop-Kovacevich is an artist who knows how to make a sound hang in the air, giving the music its buoyancy and carving a space for each note. But for all his meticulousness, he does not slight the Beethovenian temperament. His chastely tender Adagio benefitted from linear tension and allowed for a daringly protracted last few bars; his first movement cadenza synthesized emotional storms.
Post-intermission found Groves well into his element: Schumann's Fourth Symphony. Its lightweight romanticism and symmetrical layout seemed just the ticket for a musician with a keen lyric impulse and not a whole lot of interpretive depth.