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MUSIC REVIEW : Esa-Pekka Salonen Strikes Up Igor Stravinsky's Band


The best once again arrived last.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, savior-apparent of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, began his program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday with a pleasant diversion by Haydn. Then the maestro turned his formidable attention to the droopy platitudes of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which gave our redoubtable concertmaster, Sidney Weiss, his annual moment in the soloist's sun.

Finally, after intermission, came the whimsical explosions of Stravinsky's "Petrushka." Wonderful whimsical explosions.

Stravinsky's sardonic wit, his indulgent application of color and mock-primitive bravura brought out the best in Salonen. And vice-versa.

The orchestra thundered and roared, chugged and zoomed, burped and barked, giggled and gurgled, sighed and soared on precise command. It did so, moreover, with extraordinary degrees of theatrical flair.

Other conductors--the composer and his amanuensis, for two--take a less liberal approach to this marvelously quirky ballet score. They understate the inherent drama, keeping the expressive scale narrow and the narrative flow taut.

It is, of course, a legitimate approach. But it isn't the only one.

Salonen, who often displays a healthy disrespect for debatable tradition, pulled out all the dynamic stops. He lingered over amusing details. He toyed with satiric impulses. He slowed down to explore intriguing detours, and really savored the thumping climactic clashes.

He painted with bold, broad, splashy strokes. On occasion, he paid his virtuosic players the ultimate compliment: not conducting at all when his signals seemed superfluous.

The pleasure was obvious, and infectious, on both sides of the proscenium.

Haydn's Symphony No. 53, a.k.a. "L'Imperiale," had to wait 215 years for its Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere. Better late than never, I know, but this is ridiculous.

For all its formulaic manners, the D-major symphony remains a lovely model of classical grace and courtly invention. Salonen officiated over a bright and brisk performance that tended to value extroversion over subtlety.

Advance announcements suggested, incidentally, that he might sample at least two of the alternate finales that Haydn sanctioned over the years. The conductor describes himself as "a spontaneous guy," however, and at performance time he found himself unmoved by the spirit of experimentation.

The Sibelius Concerto emerged on Thursday as something of an interpretive contradiction. Weiss, an expert technician and an ever-discerning musician, played the gushing showpiece as if it were chamber music. His tone was poised and slender, his affect self-effacing. Salonen seemed to regard grandeur as Sibelius' primary impulse. The twains of restraint and heroism didn't often meet.

But then came "Petrushka."

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