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MUSIC REVIEW : Salonen in Thoughtful Program at the Bowl


Provocative programs--even at the Hollywood Bowl--are what we have come to expect from Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director now in the midst of a fortnight's visit to the outdoor showplace where his orchestra spends the summer. And provocative programs are what we are getting, at least this week at the Bowl.

Thursday night, for the second of his four appearances in Cahuenga Pass this August, Salonen produced a thoughtful agenda, one demanding great orchestral virtuosity, beginning with Debussy's turn-of-the-century "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune," and then offering two masterpieces from our century, Bartok's Second Piano Concerto and Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps." In general, the Philharmonic lived up to the demands of composers and conductor.

There were apparently serious listeners aplenty in the outdoor audience--counted by management at 11,068--and they responded vociferously to these performances. With reason. Careful, analytical, dynamically broad and highly detailed readings they were, executed with finesse by the Philharmonic players.

In fact, Salonen's approaches to these pieces sometimes become so specific that orchestral spontaneity may seem in moments stifled and artificially restrained. It remains a matter of refreshment, however, when the person on the podium thinks too much, rather than too little.

Because Philharmonic performances of the Debussy piece and Stravinsky's epochal ballet score are regular, the novelty of the evening proved to be Bartok's haunting and often neglected Third Piano Concerto, in which the 26-year-old Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen was soloist.

With his stylish, waist-length white jacket, Mustonen still looks like a busboy--as was reported here at the Bowl in 1992. But more important, his playing, at that time praised for both understatement and bravura, represents a vast improvement on the poor impressions he made in appearances with our orchestra before last summer.

Despite visual distractions--he often rises off the piano bench at climaxes, he undulates his long arms regularly, swoops crane-like down on the keyboard at entrances and generally makes a spectacle of himself--Mustonen on Thursday played quite beautifully, with easy authority and a wide-ranging color scheme.

If the listener does not look, he can follow the pianist's command of musical line, admire his non-percussive approach to tone and be touched by the poignancy of his soft-playing. Indeed, Mustonen's assets outweigh his mannerisms.

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