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Music Reviews : James Conlon Leads Rotterdam Group

October 19, 1987|JOHN HENKEN

Though founded nearly 70 years ago, the Rotterdam Philharmonic is in many ways the quintessential orchestra of the '80's. It has a young conductor--American James Conlon, appointed in 1983--and a new recording company, Erato, which has issued nine well-received discs by the orchestra.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic also has the taut, brilliant sound and clarified textures of the CD generation. Friday evening, the Dutch orchestra displayed its manifold virtues at Marsee Auditorium, El Camino College.

Mahler's Fifth Symphony is one of those orchestral vehicles which takes a full measure of the technical and interpretive resources of a conductor and his players. It defines and refines both solo and ensemble efforts, and requires the most strenuous balance between passion and restraint.

At 37, Conlon is still a boyish-looking conductor, who seems--bless him--genuinely excited about the music. Working from memory, he prowled about the raised podium, sometimes sculpting expressionistic shapes in the air, other times letting his orchestra play on with nary a gesture.

Conlon's approach allowed a wonderful spontaneity into the performance. He brought a sense of real emotions, rather than stereotyped symbols, to the piece.

But the emotions also seemed facile and fleeting at times. Conlon let the orchestra roar up to each climax as though another fortissimo might never come its way again, which was the chief contributor to the interminable feeling of his interpretation, as his tempos were within standard parameters.

The Rotterdamers played for him like champions, excepting top- heavy balances in the massed passages. Though generally lean and wiry in tone, their playing was capable of both power and warmth.

Conlon exploited his musicians' ensemble skills in a performance that emphasized contrapuntal clarity and rhythmic definition. He tended to pay more attention to beginning phrases than ending them, but enforced due regard for linear nuance and dynamic control.

Matched with the Mahler was Mozart's Piano Concerto in A, K.488. Like the orchestra, soloist Bella Davidovich proved scrupulously clean in her passage work, rhythmically precise, and quite clear about textures.

Davidovich located the emotional and musical center of gravity in the haunted Adagio, in a performance of reserved, courteous but inconsolable sorrow. The outer movements she treated with brisk, incisive control.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic seems a thoroughly democratic group, shuffling the seating in string sections for each work. Conlon led an appropriately reduced group in a sympathetic, attentive accompaniment, although he let the final cadence of the Adagio dissolve clumsily.

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