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MUSIC REVIEW

Salonen, Chalifour Revel in the Songs of Seduction

September 11, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The thermometer doesn't care about the calendar. The sun and heat are relentless. The record dry spell continues. Nights don't cool off much, and at the Hollywood Bowl the bright lights of the shell fry the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As the new fall season gears up elsewhere, the Bowl and the Southland summer are without cease.

That's the usual early September orchestral life here. And that's how it was on a quite warm evening, as the Bowl entered into the last week of its summer season. But that's not how it seemed Tuesday. The boss was back.

The boss, of course, was music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Finnish, he comes from a land where summer is short, brilliant and dearly prized. And he brought with him a still fresh idyllic summer vision. The two featured works--Leonard Bernstein's Serenade and Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe"--are luminous examinations and evocations of love. And not just any love, but Eros, the sensual love of the ancient Greeks.

There was no classical musician with a more out-of-control love life than Bernstein. In 1954, when he wrote Serenade, Bernstein was in his late 30s, married, starting a young family, and with his sights set on the New York Philharmonic (which he would get in three years), all the while attempting, but not completely, to suppress his formerly active homosexual life. Serenade demonstrated just how much love was on his mind at the time.

A concerto for solo violin, string orchestra, harp and percussion, Serenade takes its inspiration from Plato's "Symposium" and its dialogue on love. And it is a seduction show, whether it be the Bernstein of ingenious trickery (each sly melody turning into the next), of deep musical knowledge (it begins in fugue), of honeyed sentiment or of lewd jazz.

The soloist was Philharmonic principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour, and both he and Salonen have the reputation for being cool and collected modernists little associated with Bernstein's messy musical world. So it was hardly surprising that their approach was more analytical than when the composer himself conducted the work with a favored "hot" soloist, such as Isaac Stern (who premiered it) or Gidon Kremer.

But Salonen has discovered the latent modernism in the score, and its closeness in model to Bartok's entirely analytical Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. He exploited the music's orchestral brilliance; he emphasized its substance; and he capitalized on its energy. He let sentiment and jazz take care of themselves.

He also let Chalifour take care of them for him. The sheer versatility of this dazzling young player seems more remarkable with each solo outing. Speed, flexibility and a clean, focused tone etch the music with utter clarity. But he also can be surprisingly coy, when Bernstein asked for it, managing to sneak in some lilting jazz. This is something Sony might think about for its next recording with the orchestra.

"Daphnis," the full-length ballet by Ravel, is a different kind of seduction song, more innocent, more mysterious, more discreet than Bernstein's. Salonen conducted it in the spring at the Music Center and he was wise to bring the performance to the Bowl (preparing it fresh on the limited summer rehearsal schedule would hardly make sense).

The reading is typical of the conductor--utterly precise in its rhythms, illuminating of the most subtle instrumental textures and boisterous in its energetic virtuosity. It kept a large and easily distracted Bowl audience riveted for an hour.

The orchestra--and the Los Angeles Master Chorale in "Daphnis"--responded as if newly come to life. There are many solo opportunities in the Ravel and Bernstein, too many to acknowledge all of them. But it was one of the pleasures of the evening, which began with a rambunctious account of Bernstein's "Candide" Overture, that all of them were secure. Let the suave flute solos by Janet Ferguson in "Daphnis" and the rapturous cello ones in Serenade by Ronald Leonard stand for all the rest.

Also on alert were the sound engineers. Love's labors in this music were seldom lost, apart from that faint low A in the basses that opens "Daphnis" and a few other details in the Ravel score that are hard to hear even in the concert hall.

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