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MUSIC REVIEW

Philharmonic Essays Zemlinsky's Passion

March 14, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

For some years, there has been a decided effort to make Alexander Zemlinsky a lot more popular, maybe even another Mahler. And now Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have joined the effort, performing Zemlinsky's "Lyric Symphony" for the first time Wednesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The composer, who was Schoenberg's teacher and brother-in-law, was an interesting transitional figure in Vienna early in this century. He followed closely on Mahler's late-Romantic heels, but in an unusual way. Most other composers carried forward but a single facet of Mahler's often contradictory musical personality--his harmonic experiments and thematic developments, or his sweeping nostalgia, or his aggressive battle with inner demons.

But Zemlinsky took a more complex view, and no place more so than in his "Lyric Symphony," which was written in 1923, a dozen years after Mahler's death. He was hardly ready to dissociate himself from the Mahler of the 19th century, but he was also aware and interested in the composer's harmonic implications for a newer, more anxious and unsettled music that represented the new century.

The "Lyric Symphony" is patterned after a specific Mahler work, "Das Lied von der Erde" (The Song of the Earth). Like Mahler, Zemlinsky fashioned a symphony out of songs, in this case seven songs for soprano and baritone, with a big orchestra used not as accompaniment but as a means of shaping the songs into a large-scale symphonic argument that lasts 50 minutes.

And whereas "Das Lied" poignantly and profoundly views life from the perspective of leaving it, Zemlinsky was young and vital enough to mainly have sex on the brain. The poems are by Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, known as the Bengali Maeterlinck, and they are scented stuff, the Kama Sutra made abstract and symbolist. Zemlinsky's music, in its thrust, caresses and lush atmosphere, is more direct.

Such sexual energy in music probably had a more immediate impact in the '20s than it does in our own unrepressed age. Tellingly, Alban Berg quoted it in his well-known "Lyric Suite," which has as a private theme his extramarital affair. But today, a concert stage, with players in formal dress and two operatic vocal soloists who don't look like Brad Pitt and Courteney Cox, is not the kind of environment that encourages lurid fantasies.

Still, Salonen and two outstanding singers, soprano Alessandra Marc (who was a last-minute replacement for an indisposed Anne Evans) and baritone Hakan Hagegardhad their musical priorities in just the right places for a very convincing performance. Marc has a sumptuous voice; Hagegard, a lively dramatic presence. This seemed to suit the songs fine, as they followed the pattern of attraction, lovemaking, restlessness on the man's part, anger on the woman's, and finally, an attempt to find a little meaning amid the emptiness.

Zemlinsky is not Mahler--Mahler would never have been satisfied finding just a little meaning in anything. But Salonen zeroed in on what is best in Zemlinsky--the strong dramatic character of the music and the alluring and shimmering orchestral colors. He knew not to let the work sprawl. He did not overdo its unfulfilled ecstasies (a dangerous temptation), but he didn't ignore them either. Most difficult of all, he allowed Zemlinsky all his ambiguities without making the performance seem tentative.

The evening began with familiar music--a tidy and weighty performance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. The Philharmonic is not doing much to celebrate the 200th birthday of Schubert this season, but at least, with this performance, it is taking the little it is doing seriously.

* The same program will be repeated tonight at 8, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $8-$60. (213) 365-3500.

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