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MUSIC REVIEW : Philharmonic Plays Slavic Music With a British Accent

April 03, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

As long as there's Slavic music, the management of the Los Angeles Philharmonic seemed to reason on Thursday, there'll always be an England.

The logic may not be impeccable, but the proof of the bromide lay in the music-making. In this case, it involved Mark Elder--guest-conductor from the English National Opera--joining Peter Donohoe--a prize-winning pianist from Manchester--in an evening devoted to Janacek, Rachmaninoff and Dvorak.

There wasn't a snippet of Elgar, Walton, Tippett or Britten in earshot. Perhaps the guardians of our musical virtue felt we had heard enough of that repertory under Andre Previn.

It can be dangerous, we know, and odious too, to pay too much attention to national distinctions when dealing with what is supposed to be a universal language. It can be unfair, possibly stupid, to apply interpretive labels on the basis of geographical associations.

Still, it would seem safe to say that Elder and Donohoe approached their passionate, potentially theatrical challenges with cool restraint and polite understatement. Call it good British taste.

If the cliche fits. . . .

All night long, one had to admire the clarity of Elder's beat, the neatness of his structural schemes, his abiding concern for detail. At concerto time, one had to admire Donohoe's breezy facility. Both gentlemen are sturdy technicians, and both sturdy musicians, certainly, are gentlemen.

There's the rub. At least one ingrate in the somewhat sparse audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion would have welcomed a little less decorum and a little more rapture. The prose was fine. The poetry was timid.

The most satisfying and certainly most interesting part of the program came at the outset, with the first Philharmonic performance of Janacek's "Sumarovo dite," a.k.a. "The Fiddler's Child." Written in 1912 and lasting only 12 minutes, it is a deft programmatic essay, grim in demeanor and thin in texture.

Janacek used sparse, primitive strokes to retell Svatopluk Cech's bleak folk-allegory. Under Elder's orderly baton, the Philharmonic gave the so-called ballad for orchestra a properly tough and grainy if not particularly poignant performance.

Donohoe received a de rigueur ovation after his clangorous account of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3. Many zealots sprang to their feet to greet the hectic arrival of the final cadence.

They were no doubt applauding the soloist's stamina, his dexterity and his speed. They could not have been applauding his power, his sense of majesty, his concern for the contrast of repose, his use of rubato or his emotional profundity. These essential qualities seemed a bit limited.

Elder and the Philharmonic provided attentive support, little more and no less. Here was a splendid orchestra playing, as it were, by the numbers.

The biggest change after intermission involved the decrease in attendance. For many subscribers, a Rachmaninoff showpiece is an act that doesn't need to be followed.

Nevertheless, it was followed here by Dvorak's potentially expansive Symphony No. 6. Elder made it taut, brisk and brusque.

Sentiment be damned.

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