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Music Reviews : Salonen's Cool Debussy, Warm Lutoslawski

November 12, 1994|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Esa-Pekka Salonen managed to reverse some musical history when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of Debussy, Witold Lutoslawski and Joseph Canteloube on Thursday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Whereas listeners usually hear Debussy's influences in the music of Stravinsky, which came later, Salonen evoked Stravinsky's acerbic, fragmented structures in the French composer's earlier "Images" and "La Mer." Disconcerting.

Fortunately, soprano Dawn Upshaw was on hand to lend vocal sweetness and warmth to Lutoslawski's witty "Chantefleurs et Chantefables" and six selections from Canteloube's evergreen "Chants d'Auvergne."

Salonen had the Philharmonic playing like an alert machine, glittering in precision, transparency and incisiveness, responsive to every flick of his wrist. In his own way, however, he was as wayward in interpretation as conductors of an earlier generation now maligned for their indulgences.

But whereas they would, say, rev up tempos, then slam on the brakes for outsize expressive contrasts, Salonen avoided the built-in expressive effects as much as possible, refusing to allow any wave to surge, crest and break, and sacrificing momentum and sweep to a tight governance of passing event.

*

To be sure, Salonen mined the taut inner tension in Debussy's music when it was there. But it was not always there, and at those times the music pulled apart like wet tissue. Forget also about sensuous colors and half-heard melodic lines. The conductor favored, rather, pungent, hard-edged accents and juxtapositions.

This approach better suited Lutoslawski's 1990 "Chantefleurs," a series of nine bracing, deftly drawn portraits of fabulous flora and fauna, based on poems Robert Desnos wrote for children. The characters include a self-satisfied tortoise, a hungry alligator and an army of thirsty butterflies.

Upshaw responded to the composer's various impersonations with bright, delicate, lush and sometimes sardonic vocalism, spinning out seamless, shimmering lines without abandoning textual clarity or meaning.

Against Lutoslawski's lean modernism, Canteloube's settings of the Auvergnat folk songs tended to sound somewhat overripe. But Salonen countered by generally keeping the tempos moving briskly. And Upshaw offered irresistible vocal characterizations as an excitable youth stealing time to flirt ("Tchut, tchut"), sad lovers separated by a river ("Pastourelle"), a mother soothing her baby to sleep ("Brezairola") and a peacock-proud owner of a cuckoo ("Lou Coucut").

* This Los Angeles Philharmonic program will be repeated Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. $6-$50. (213) 365-3500.

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