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MUSIC REVIEW : Salonen Paints a Romantic Landscape


"Also sprach Zarathustra," Richard Strauss' half-hour exploration of extramusical philosophical depths, used to be a signature piece of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. That was in the late 1960s and early '70s, heyday of former Music Director Zubin Mehta.

There was none of the Mehta bombast or bravado in the orchestra's performance of "Zarathustra," Thursday night at Hollywood Bowl, however, when current Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen had his way with the orchestra and the tone-poem.

How the Philharmonic plays the piece these days reflects upgrading in every department since those more-innocent decades; those remembered performances had their thrills, yet they lacked the shine, the internal resonances and layered detailing, the mellow strengths of this one.

This "Zarathustra" was only one of the program's three pillars of Romantic, ultra-Romantic and post-post-Romantic repertory, which the orchestra played with wonderful polish, rare finesse and, most important, genuine vitality before an audience of 8,519.

Facing his instrumentalists, Salonen may look like an uninvolved Junior Sphinx. But, on his best days, his dispassionate demeanor masks as energetic and charismatic an approach to music making as this podium has held since those Mehta years.

The younger conductor, offering an agenda of symphonic display for his final appearance at the Bowl this summer, showed off his orchestra to wonderful effect, not only in the Strauss work, but also in Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" Symphony--in which Evan Wilson was the suave-toned and virtuosic soloist--and, ear-openingly, in Alexander Mosolov's arrestingly modernistic "Iron Foundry," a 3 1/2-minute excerpt from the 1930 ballet "Steel," a work of Soviet realism.

Throughout this compact evening, orchestra and conductor seemed to work effortlessly together, shaping long and apprehensible musical lines, observing stylistic limits, reserving the loudest emanations for the most appropriate climaxes. For once, occasional brassiness of sound had its proper and effective uses. A genial mellowness seemed to characterize the orchestral profile.

Wilson's splendorous but full tone and commanding technique gave an especial sheen to the beauties of Berlioz's "Harold in Italy"; unsurprisingly, his fellow Philharmonic principals, fulfilling solo duties in Strauss, upheld the standard.

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