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MUSIC REVIEW : The Other Finnish Maestro Debuts : Jukka-Pekka Saraste proves himself a reliable, objective presence as a guest on Esa-Pekka Salonen's Los Angeles Philharmonic podium.

December 11, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

According to conventional wisdom--which is seldom conventional and hardly ever wise--Esa-Pekka Salonen is the flashy Finn. Jukka-Pekka Saraste, his buddy, is the serious one.

Salonen, 35, and Saraste, 37, have more in common than a middle name. Their backgrounds are similar, and both conductors are poised on the threshold of promising careers.

Salonen, in case you've been off the planet lately, is the gutsy, increasingly controversial music-director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Saraste is about to become music-director of the Toronto Symphony.

Thursday night, Saraste accepted an invitation to lead Salonen's orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was the other Pekka's turn.

The guest came without much fuss. He saw the virtue of a demanding program that would pit the intimacy of Mozart against the heroism of Mahler. He didn't exactly conquer, but he did demonstrate solid competence--a quality we can't always take for granted when guests take over our podium.

Jukka-Pekka--also known as John Peter--Saraste would seem to be the sort of musician we used to call reliable and objective--before those descriptions became pejoratives. He has a good, clear technique. He keeps the music moving.

He doesn't concern himself with eccentricities of manner or interpretation. He doesn't take liberties, doesn't permit exaggerations. He doesn't seem to work up much of a sweat, even when confronting the magnified agonies and ecstasies of romanticism in decay.

It is nice. It is reassuring. But it isn't very exciting. At least it wasn't very exciting on this occasion.

In Mozart's A-major Piano Concerto, K. 488, which opened the program, Saraste provided a neat, moderately propulsive, reasonably transparent framework for his eminently competent soloist, Jasminka Sancul, who was making her debut as a replacement for the ailing Zoltan Kocsis. A 28-year-old Serbian native now residing in Austria, Sancul attended to Mozart's lyrical flights and ornate digressions with plenty of dashing authority. She didn't expend much energy, however, on matters of dynamic finesse, and didn't find much charm amid the brio.

Under the circumstances, the bland, essentially prosaic accompaniment provided by Saraste seemed ironically appropriate.

In the mighty sprawl of Mahler's Symphony No. 6, the conductor let the composer do most of the work. Unlike many a more famous colleague, Saraste resisted gilding the musical lily. His restraint seemed admirable, for about 20 of the 80 long minutes. Then it began to resemble inhibition.

What should have sounded spontaneous tended to sound mechanical. The convoluted writhings seemed busy, not tragic. The massive climaxes stopped safely short of cataclysm. The nostalgic andante served as a dutiful calm between vague storms, and the composer's fierce reluctance to reach the ultimate resolution of the last movement created more aggravation than tension.

The Philharmonic often played brilliantly. It was difficult, however, to discern the connection between the visiting boss's matter-of-fact signals and the orchestra's relatively urgent responses.

Significantly, perhaps, the large audience mustered instant applause before the last chord had even begun to evaporate. Saraste looked a bit startled. Great performances of the Mahler Sixth inspire stunned silence first, then ovations.

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