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The Toast of New York? (Or Will He Be Just Toast?) : The L.A. Philharmonic hasn't played the Big Apple in four years, and never with Esa-Pekka Salonen. Neither conductor nor orchestra has ever been the toast of the town, so what makes them think next week will be any different?

November 20, 1994|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is a free-lance writer based in New York. and

NEW YORK — The Los Angeles Philharmonic comes to Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall next week, its first visit to New York in four years and its first trip here with its music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Once more, the orchestra joins the great New York musical jostle for recognition.

The parade of orchestras visiting New York this season has already included the Boston Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra (both of which offer short seasons here), the Pittsburgh Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, the Houston Symphony, Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, along with orchestras from St. Petersburg, London, Osaka, Weimar, Wales and Slovakia.

And the season is only 2 months old.

Still to come are dozens more orchestras, from Oslo to Austria, from Cincinnati to Costa Rica. They come because the record business is still based here, because the music management companies are here, and because New York reviews help sell tickets and please boards at home.

Many orchestras make regular annual visits, coming here with their own well-oiled publicity machines operating at full tilt, and they get additional publicity support from either Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall--the two major New York concert venues. Some even hire private local public relations firms for further hype expertise. The competition for attention is steep, and New York, of course, has its own several orchestras, including two world-class ones--the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

How, then, can any single orchestra--or at least any orchestra that is not the Vienna Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw--really make much of an impact in such a climate? Especially given the fact that space in the local newspapers and magazines (all of which have reduced classical music coverage, some drastically, in recent years) is at a premium. The fight (and it really has become just that) for big audiences has become tougher than ever.

Can the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which hasn't performed in New York for four years, compete?

Apparently it can and will. A surprising amount of attention seems to surround the upcoming appearances in Fisher Hall next Sunday and Nov. 28, since they will be not only the orchestra's first New York appearances under Esa-Pekka Salonen but the start of an annual pilgrimage by the orchestra and its music director to Lincoln Center. Both the New Yorker and the New York Times, the two most influential publications in town, have commissioned pieces on Salonen. If anything is likely to produce a buzz, such a rare double publicity whammy should.

But what makes this interest especially noteworthy is the fact that New York has in recent years not shown much enthusiasm for the Philharmonic, for its previous three music directors, for other conductors closely associated with it, or for Salonen. Andre Previn, who lives in nearby Westchester County, is now a regular in New York, guest conducting the New York Philharmonic and Orchestra of St. Luke's, appearing in chamber music, but he tends to generate cool respect and is no longer a hot box-office draw.

Carlo Maria Giulini, however beloved internationally, never had much of a presence in New York. Zubin Mehta, who left the Los Angeles Philharmonic to become music director of the New York Philharmonic, remained here for 13 years, after which time the press had become decidedly hostile toward him, and the orchestra, itself, dispirited. Although Mehta is not regularly invited back to conduct the New York Philharmonic, he does return regularly with the Israel Philharmonic, and he does retain a public.

Nor has the Los Angeles Philharmonic had much better luck with former principal guest conductors who toured with it. Simon Rattle, one of the most admired conductors in Europe and elsewhere in the United States, has conducted little in New York, and his couple of appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic or his own highly regarded City of Birmingham Orchestra did not leave a lasting impression. Michael Tilson Thomas, once a regular in the city, now seldom appears. Kurt Sanderling, much revered in Los Angeles and Europe, was somewhat dismissed in New York.

Salonen, himself, has not had any better luck in New York. He, too, has practically no presence here, outside of his recordings. Eight years ago he guest conducted the New York Philharmonic, generated no sparks, and was not invited back. Three seasons ago, Salonen returned with the Swedish Radio Orchestra to no better acclaim.

But Salonen has little to say about such matters: "I am looking forward to returning to New York, especially since these will be the first concerts I conduct in New York with the Los Angeles Philharmonic," he cautiously remarked during a break between rehearsals with the orchestra last week. "I know the players anticipate our New York concerts, and the prospect of returning regularly in the future to play for New York audiences is especially appealing for both them and me."

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