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MUSIC REVIEW

Philharmonic Ventures Back to Future

December 21, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Luciano Berio, the Italian composer, has a postmodern phrase to describe the compulsion artists often have, and composers especially, to revisit the past, to reinterpret other works and eras in their own voice. He calls it remembering the future, and that is what the Los Angeles Philharmonic is doing this week in a program that is about as close as our unsentimental orchestra is likely to come to holiday fare.

The program surrounds Mozart's radiant and playful Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat with music by famous latter-day Russians, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, looking fondly back to Mozart's day but still being very much their ruminative selves. The conductor and pianist were the same, Jeffrey Kahane, who was making his Music Center debut Thursday night in the former role.

With the Philharmonic scaled to chamber size, Kahane, in effect, was also remembering the future in a different sense, since his conducting debut offered a preview of what we might expect when he becomes music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra next season. (The Philharmonic has been divided into two smaller orchestra this week to be available for seven performances of two different programs, the other led by Joseph Swensen and reviewed Friday).

The results were happy in the Mozart, where they mattered the most, and lively enough in Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" and Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4 ("Mozartiana"). As a pianist, Kahane has always been a direct and authoritative player, honoring clarity and evenhandedness, although with just the slightest touch of aloofness, or maybe "self-awareness" is a better word. His tone in the Mozart was the stuff of pearls.

Kahane's conducting style, on the other hand, is full of rough energy, mixing it up with the players. Of all Mozart's concertos, the E-flat seems the closest to big-band jazz, what with its horns, prominent woodwinds and active timpani, but also because of piano solos that have the air of improvisation about them. And Kahane here seemed especially Ellingtonian--a member of the band when conducting it, but in his own glorious world as soon as his fingers touched the keys. It's a curious way to play Mozart these days (ironically, the jazz boys who have been playing the concertos lately are much stuffier), but for all we know, Mozart may have been a lot like Kahane himself.

As for the Russians, they could have sounded weirder than Kahane--in his straight-ahead manner--made them sound. One remembers how the late Sergiu Celibidache X-rayed Prokofiev's Haydnesque symphony for its scatological jokes, or how the Russian Evgeny Svetlanov makes Tchaikovsky's full-blown arrangements of Mozart seem like Classical ballet in Romantic drag. Still, lack of extravagance in overworked music will come as relief for some.

* The Los Angeles Philharmonic repeats this program tonight at 8, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $8-$60. (213) 365-3500.

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