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Music Review : Triumphant Opener for Salonen, Philharmonic


Members of the audience were handed carnations as they entered the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday. The stage was bedecked with sunflowers. It was, to be sure, a florid night.

The real festivities, however, were better heard than seen. Returning from an apparently triumphant European tour, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened the orchestra's 76th season with a bracing little survey of 20th-Century milestones, all bearing Slavic accents.

This is the sort of challenge that invariably brings out the best in our modernist maestro. The best, on this occasion, turned out to be formidable. Also exhilarating.

Salonen chose Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" (1917) as a jaunty prelude to the thorny lyricism of Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto (1987) and the zonking primitivism of Stravinsky's "Le sacre du printemps" (1913). The sophisticated first-nighters applauded as if they were being serenaded with an evening of Tchaikovsky's Greatest Hits.

We have come a long way, Igor. It has taken a long time.

Although Salonen may not be the most indulgent or the most appreciative romanticist on contemporary podia, he has few peers when it comes to the cerebral complexities of his own harsh times. For him, Prokofiev must seem a sweet sentimentalist, Lutoslawski an elegant conservative and Stravinsky a towering figure of antiquity. Everything is relative.

Our 36-year-old music director brought a sly smile to the iconoclastic extravagances of the Prokofiev symphony--slowing down drastically to savor a witty nuance here, focusing carefully on an unorthodox instrumental detail there, ultimately telling picturesque tales on a vast dynamic scale that avoided the traps of both exaggeration and distortion. The players responded to every directorial whim with snappy bravura. It was terrific.

When we first encountered Lutoslawski's bold yet pervasively nostalgic Piano Concerto in 1991, the composer conducted and Krystian Zimerman was the soloist. If memory serves, the orchestra sounded a bit reticent, the pianist marvelously wild. Now the values seem to have undergone a fascinating reversal.

With Salonen's analytical baton slicing the air, the symphonic impulses soared with bravado that ensured propulsion but never precluded precision. With an inspired Paul Crossley stressing introspection rather than flash at the keyboard, the protagonist's role became resolutely subdued.

The resultant tensions were hardly the same as those of the West Coast premiere. Nevertheless, they made compelling sense on different terms. Lutoslawski spent most of his career searching for a proper fusion of the intellectual and emotional impulses in his music. Salonen and Crossley proved that there is more than one way to balance the equation. One looks forward to their projected recording.

The Philharmonic played Prokofiev with heroic finesse for Salonen, and Lutoslawski with disciplined flamboyance. When it came to the Stravinsky rituals after intermission our orchestra went even further. The music snapped, cracked and dazzled.

Salonen has polished this still forbidding score to the point where he can take all manner of rhythmic and dynamic chances with impunity. He can play very fast, very slow and very loose with tempos and never court confusion, much less disaster. He can push to precarious extremes without resorting to superficiality or flirting with vulgarity.

The orchestra now understands him, gives him what he wants, and, most important, does so with stunning force and laughing ease. Stravinsky's exquisitely calculated strokes of violence have seldom seemed so spontaneous, so theatrical or so cathartic.

For all we know, the crowd at the Music Center may still be cheering. It was a good beginning.

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