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West Coast's Orchestral Paradise

**** COPLAND THE MODERNIST. San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. (RCA Victor Red Seal)l; *** 1/2 BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Los Angeles Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. (Sony Classical).

January 19, 1997|Mark Swed

You might not know it at the moment--what with the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new concert hall an ominously looming question mark and the San Francisco Symphony's strike--but we on the West Coast reside in an orchestral paradise. L.A. and San Francisco have, between them, the two most interesting and relevant music directors in the country, and two orchestras that are now playing up to the level of any orchestra anywhere, as these two magnificent recordings attest.

If Tilson Thomas gets the edge, it is in part because Copland's Piano Concerto (with Garrick Ohlsson a compelling soloist), Orchestral Variations, Short Symphony and Symphonic Ode are gripping pieces from the '20s and '30s that have for too long been dwarfed by Copland"s more gracious Americana works that followed. Early Copland has long been known to be full of jazz and vinegar, if a little stern. But a passionate Tilson Thomas reveals a new level of musical expression and warmth in performances of unmistakable vitality. This disc is an instant American classic.

The L.A. program is not as newsworthy, the Bartok favorites having had any number of fine, even great, recordings over the years from the likes of Reiner, Boulez and others. Still, Salonen manages to achieve a sense of adventure and sheer elan that make the pieces irresistible all over again. The L.A. Philharmonic sounds fabulous, the recording made on a Hollywood sound stage allows for details in the playing to jump to life in a way they never can in the current acoustic of the orchestra's downtown digs. And the race-car tempos at the end of the Concerto for Orchestra will sweep you off your feet.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good), four stars (excellent).

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