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MUSIC REVIEW : Philharmonic Benefit: The Gala That Wasn't

March 08, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Once upon a time, in the good old days and the best of all possible worlds, pension-fund benefits at the Los Angeles Philharmonic were festive occasions.

The repertory tended to be unusual. The soloist had to be stellar, in quality as well as name. The orchestra players, helping to protect their own future, tried hard to prove just how good good could be.

Recently, however, these annual celebrations have slipped into the comfy realm of the routine. Business as usual. Another opening, another show.

And so it was Monday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Everyone on the stage seemed willing to function on automatic pilot. Everyone seemed a bit tired.

Only the audience--large, dressy and eager to bestow push-button ovations--performed as if this were a special event. As matters turned out, the only special element involved ticket prices, which rose from the standard $50 to $75 for a choice seat.

During the symphonic half of the agenda, Esa-Pekka Salonen reheated two popular showpieces performed earlier in the season. At the beginning there was "Pohjola's Daughter" by Sibelius, which had opened the subscription programs only two weeks ago. At the end there was the Concerto for Orchestra of Bartok, last heard at the Music Center in November and subsequently repeated for tour purposes.

The excitement turned out to be bearable.

The star attraction was Isaac Stern. The beloved violinist, rapidly approaching patriarchal-legend status, offered two ornamental pieces by Mozart as a prelude to the soupy Romantic indulgences of the Bruch G-minor Concerto.

The excitement turned out to be dutiful.

Salonen enforced a reasonably broad dynamic scale and fair sense of drama for Sibelius' pictorial poem. But he managed to sustain little tension (the premature applause attested to that), and he failed to elicit his customary clarity and brilliance from the orchestra. Daniel Rothmuller, however, made much of the elegiac cello solos.

The maestro and his players found the splashy Bartok Concerto a congenial challenge, as always. Even here, however, they failed to muster all the precision, wry wit and cool bravado that illuminated past efforts.

Stern's place in history is secure. He proved, long, long ago, that he is a virtuoso blessed with extraordinary brains and heart as well as a strong arm and nimble fingers. He has personified class for several generations of music-lovers.

Having made his orchestral debut (in San Francisco) 59 years ago, he certainly deserves to rest on his laurels. They were fabulous laurels.

At times on Monday one could discern flashes of past greatness. Nevertheless, one had to make a lot of allowances.

Nearing his 75th birthday, Stern cannot re-create the consistent glories of yesteryear. His tone now tends to be frail. His phrasing tends to sound perfunctory. His intonation has become unreliable.

Mozart's E-major Adagio and C-major Rondo (K. 261 and 373 respectively) suggested warm-up exercises. Clunkily accompanied by a conductor probably suffering from stylistic alienation, the Bruch Concerto suggested a pale shadow of an erstwhile triumph.

One still could admire Stern's stubborn, old-school authority. But even for ardent admirers sentimentality can only go so far

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