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Music Review : Welser-Most: An Impulsive Guest at Philharmonic


What a difference three days make.

Monday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated its 75th birthday with a gala benefit concert that enlisted two stellar music directors (one present, one past) and attracted a full house at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. For better or worse, this was a special night.

Thursday--same time, same place--it was business as usual. Franz Welser-Most, an Austrian guest-conductor from London, manned the podium, and the hall virtually yawned with empty seats. Glamour comes and glamour goes.

Welser-Most is no stranger to our orchestra, and he elicited wonderful sounds. He favors lighter, brighter, more transparent textures than are cultivated by either of his immediate predecessors--Esa-Pekka Salonen and Zubin Mehta--and our ever-adaptable players give him what he wants. They give it, moreover, with considerable panache and remarkable precision.

That doesn't mean, however, that the dashing and youthful maestro (born in 1960) can transform every timbre into musical gold. On this occasion he achieved something of a personal triumph in the first half of the program, only to enter trouble-territory in the second.

He opened the concert with Anton Webern's "Im Sommerwind," a splashy idyll written in 1904 when the composer was an eager and innocent 21. Welser-Most began this little nostalgic flight with a resonant hush that heralded, and accommodated, great dynamic contrasts. He went on to define the theatrical indulgences with vitality that never precluded finesse. It was lovely.

Similar attributes enlivened Schubert's "little" C-major Symphony, No. 6, written in 1818 when this composer also was an eager and innocent 21. Welser-Most soared through the pretty platitudes with dauntless propulsion and buoyant spirit. It was elegant, and it was invigorating.

Then, after intermission, came Brahms--specifically the Fourth Symphony. This is a dark, brooding, majestic opus, written in 1885 when the composer was an emphatically mature 52. Unfortunately, Welser-Most imposed the same interpretive stances that had served him so well for Webern and Schubert.

He ignored the non troppo marking of the opening allegro non troppo, stressing breathless speed at its own expense. He ignored the moderato marking of the subsequent andante. There was nothing playful in his overwrought allegro giocoso, and the climactic finale--allegro energico e passionato--was slashed beyond the stridency threshold.

The performance turned out to be undeniably exciting in its snazzy, impulsive, wrong-headed way. But it wasn't stylish, it wasn't sensitive, and it certainly wasn't mellow.

Perhaps all Brahms conductors under 60 should be forced to listen to the recordings of Bruno Walter. Or Carlo Maria Giulini.

Welser-Most, incidentally, is about to give up his embattled post as music director of the London Philharmonic in favor of the Zurich Opera. His regime in London has been artistically controversial, to say the least, and the inherent problems have been well documented in the press. One would never guess it, however, from the biographical blurb in the Music Center program that blithely calls him one of the "most successful young conductors to lead a major symphonic ensemble."

In context, the gentle revisionism shouldn't surprise anyone. The same program magazine contains flimsy anecdotal annotations by Jim Svejda that claim, among other debatable distortions, that Webern, "like Schoenberg, remained a Romantic to the very end."

Oh dear.

* Welser-Most and the L.A. Philharmonic repeat the same program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center Sunday at 2:30 p.m., tickets $6 to $50 at the box office and commercial outlets. "Family matinee" today at 2:30 (Schubert and Brahms only), tickets $5 to $35. Information: (213) 850-2000.

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