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Revealing Debut for Hirokami

August 29, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Jun'ichi Hirokami: b. 1958, Tokyo. Educated at the Tokyo College of Music. Music director of the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden from 1990 to 1995, and now chief conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl debut Tuesday night.

Those are hardly snappy credentials. Hirokami is, thus far, little known in America, having previously appeared only at the Aspen Music Festival and with the Cincinnati Orchestra. But Europe is crazy about him, and there has been much talk about extraordinary Mahler performances in Britain and Holland coming from a young Japanese conductor.

The buzz is, if anything, understated. You can often tell something about a conductor right away, from the way he walks on stage, his initial attitude toward the orchestra, his first downbeat and the sound the orchestra makes. Michael Tilson Thomas, in his recent book of conversations, has said that the hardest part of the performance for him is that first entry into the hall, that immediate establishment of contact with musicians and audience.

Hirokami walked on stage like Milton Berle, like he owned the place and couldn't wait to get out in front of the public. And from the opening bars of the Overture to Rossini's opera, "Semiramide," Hirokami indicated, even across the large distance between stage and listeners at the Bowl, that he finds every note he conducts special. This is the kind of natural stage presence that can't be taught.

One way to describe Hirokami may be as a combination of the seemingly irreconcilable. He honors clarity and precision in the late 20th century manner of, say, a Boulez. Yet he also exhibits the rhythmic propulsion and can make a line swell irresistibly in the manner of Bernstein. He dances as he conducts but never overdoes it.

Hirokami's Rossini was a marvel. The repeated rhythmic cells were as crisp and hypnotic as minimalism, the lyrical melodies above them were seductively lyrical.

*

Much of the same could be said for Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, after intermission. Rather than the generalized lyricism that usually is enough for Dvorak's most pastoral symphony, Hirokami questioned everything. Counterpoint that one rarely notices in the first movement suddenly leaped up as interesting musical arguments. The slow movement was a wake-up call of startling calls and responses. The Finale pranced and swung in imaginative ways I have never heard before. Everywhere there were revelations.

The Philharmonic's playing wasn't perfect, and occasionally the orchestra seemed caught off guard by the conductor. But there couldn't possibly have been time for it to work through all that Hirokami had on his mind, and the playing, nonetheless, had a presence that is rare enough under any conditions and downright remarkable at a late-season Bowl program under a new conductor.

What didn't work was the Bruch Violin Concerto, which featured another Philharmonic debutante. But in this instance the 20-year-old Canadian violinist, James Ehnes, brought along plenty of hype. Already he has an exclusive recording contract with Telarc and his program biography (two lines longer than Hirokami's) flaunts violinist Erick Friedman's claim that the young Canadian is "a talent that comes around once in a hundred years."

Maybe Ehnes will someday grow into those words. He has the technique and assurance that so many exceptional young violinists exhibit these days, but on Tuesday he played the concerto as if he had learned it one way, with every note and phrase in predictable place. Hirokami danced around him, but there was no contact.

One more debut: Dennis Prager, the radio talk-show host is often nice to the Philharmonic on the air, so the orchestra in back-scratching turn, allowed him to conduct the national anthem.

* Jun'ichi Hirokami conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic tonight at 8:30, Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave. $1-$75. (213) 850-2000.

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