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MUSIC REVIEWS : Lawrence Foster Comes Home to L.A. Philharmonic

March 20, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Lawrence Foster has a long history with Los Angeles and its Philharmonic Orchestra.

Born here in 1941, he seconded Zubin Mehta as assistant conductor from 1965 to 1968 and has been a frequent, popular guest on our podia ever since.

He is a conductor for all seasons--serious, reliable, intelligent, versatile. He isn't particularly flashy. He doesn't tend to make the heart beat faster. He doesn't often illuminate old challenges with startling new ideas. But he is always a reassuring presence.

If all had gone as planned, he would have just completed the second of two weeks as guest at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Illness forced him to cancel the first half of his latest engagement, however, and the return of the native didn't take place until Friday.

As matters turned out, it wasn't the happiest of returns. The Philharmonic, which can be a spit-polish ensemble when properly stimulated, played with rather lumpish spirit and haphazard accuracy for its old friend.

The rather pat program began with a little dutiful modernism on behalf of Pierre Boulez's 70th birthday, then surveyed some Mozartean bravura at concerto time before turning to the hum-along rhetoric of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony. Competence was plentiful. Inspiration seemed scarce.

Although Boulez began his "Livre pour quatuor," a study for string quartet, in 1948 and enlarged it for string orchestra--"Livre pour Cordes"--in 1968, the piece remains a work in progress. Slow progress.

The current version, heard under the composer's baton at UCLA in 1989 and now presented for the first time at a Philharmonic subscription concert, retains only the first movement, "Variation." It entails 12 minutes of carefully plotted atonal structures that evolve in graceful permutations.

The textures shift and the melodic strands tangle. The mood remains lyrical, despite the inherent harmonic clashes. An emotional appeal lurks beneath the intellectual challenge.

*

Foster, who had intended to open the program with Stravinsky's "Jeu de Cartes," worked very hard to sustain Boulez's coherence and momentum. The result, unfortunately, was tentative in attack, fuzzy in definition. The Friday-nighters applauded meekly.

Christian Zacharias, the celebrated German pianist who dominated Mozart's Concerto No. 15,K. 450, had appeared with the Philharmonic in Lucerne two years ago. This, however, was his Los Angeles debut.

He commands a big, bright tone, a broad dynamic range and bravura dexterity. Unfortunately, he couldn't invariably make these at tributes serve Mozart's best interests.

Brisk and brash in the first movement, he played with impetuosity that made the exposition sound like improvisation. He took drastic rhythmic liberties while banishing most traces of delicacy and all traces of sentimentality. He dazzled in the cadenzas (Mozart's own), calmed down for the Andante, and drove home the final Allegro with a heroic flourish.

One had to admire his sense of adventure. At the same time, one had to question his sense of style.

Mellowness returned--everything is relative--with the Mendelssohn symphony after intermission. Foster didn't pause much for introspective nuances. He certainly did not strive for the spacious grandeur that some specialists find in this score, or the lyrical finesse favored by others.

Nevertheless, he enforced solid degrees of grace, logic and propulsion en route to the finale. The whomping cadence brought down the house, on cue.

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