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Salonen Returns to Mahler's Mighty Third

October 14, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Gustav Mahler's mighty, sprawling, pensive, virtually endless, sometimes gnarled, alternately intimate and grandiose, ultimately thunderous Symphony No. 3 has served as something of a signature piece for Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The young maestro--virtually unknown and either preposterously foolhardy or preposterously naive--assumed the challenge for the first time on short notice at a London concert in 1983, replacing an indisposed colleague. The visiting Finn's success was tumultuous, against all odds. The rest is history.

Significantly, no doubt, Salonen chose the same symphony to inaugurate his tenure as 10th music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic two seasons ago, and he subsequently used it as a calling card with his California band at the Lucerne Festival. The lightning has struck consistently, again and again, in the same musical place.

Wednesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Salonen dared history to repeat itself. And, after a bracing fashion, it did.

Two basic, essentially dissimilar schools of Mahler conducting have evolved over the past decades.

The most popular interpreters--Leonard Bernstein and his conspicuously perspiring emulators--pull out all the emotional stops, and sometimes gild the expressive lily. In their hyper-romantic approach to Gargantuan glory, there is no such thing as too much.

The more intellectual Mahlerites--with cool Pierre Boulez at the head of the class--strive for objectivity and restraint. The composer has built his essential message into the score, they reason, and the heroic rhetoric benefits from toning down. Less, they insist, is more.

Salonen seems to strive for a middle ground between these extremes. He gives the zonking apparatus its due yet inclines, wherever possible, toward understatement.

A stylistic quibbler might wish for a little more expansion--temporal as well as dynamic--in the ultimate, long-delayed climaxes, and, perhaps, a bit more serenity in the introspective passages. Mahler knew what he wanted when he issued the instruction "ohne Hast" (without haste). Sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the episodic ride would not seem to be Salonen's favorite musical pastime.

This maestro strives for cohesion over the 100-minute haul, and he savors tension in the process. He sustains steadfast clarity while tracing the most devious architectural detours and lucidity even when exploring the wildest orchestral thicket. He overlooks few details, allows no faking. Obviously, he is a musician who finds easy effects difficult.

His Mahler Third is stern yet heroic, relatively calm yet poignant. It makes emphatic sense on its own specific terms.

The Philharmonic followed Salonen's precise commands on Wednesday with faithful ardor, even though the playing wasn't always notable for neatness in depth. Monica Groop, the young Finnish mezzo-soprano who will replace Elise Ross as Debussy's Melisande with the Music Center Opera in February, sang her philosophical solos with opulent tone, impeccable poise and perfectly muted drama. The women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, joined by the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, brought angelic cheer to their "Wunderhorn" interjections.

The eager Wednesday-nighters mustered mood-shattering applause after nearly every cadence. Oddly, Salonen did little to discourage the disruptions.

* Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic repeat Mahler's Third Symphony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center today at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday night at 8. Tickets $6-$50 at the box office and commercial outlets. Information: (213) 365-3500.

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