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A Surprise Ending to 'Ligeti'

Music review: Leonard Slatkin, stepping in for Pierre Boulez, doesn't exactly follow the script.

May 25, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

"Around Ligeti," the five-week festival of the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, has been the startling success of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's season. But "Around Ligeti" came to a surprising finish at season's end over the weekend. There was Ligeti's modernism, then it was no longer around, almost as if it had never been.

Leonard Slatkin was on the podium. He was an apt choice to replace Pierre Boulez, who had withdrawn from this and other conducting appearances for a period to complete works long ago promised. On Boulez's original program had been Ligeti's Piano Concerto from 1988, and Slatkin, while music director of the St. Louis Symphony, had been the first conductor in America to program it.

But Slatkin had more on his mind than Ligeti at the Thursday night performance in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. A Los Angeles native who seldom performs in his hometown anymore, he had some catching up to do. Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony for the past two seasons and an admirable champion of American music, has become one of the most prominent American conductors. And he clearly wanted us to know why.

For the first half of his program, Slatkin remained loyal to Esa-Pekka Salonen's Ligeti game plan, which has been to combine the music by the Hungarian composer, whose 75th birthday is Thursday, with symphonies by Haydn. The pairing here was Haydn's 93rd with Ligeti's concerto--wacky works, both.

Surprise is probably the most endangered condition of symphony life. We are conditioned to know music before we hear it. The standard repertory is drummed into us. We listen to recordings, hear preconcert talks, read program notes. We are supposed to be prepared for what we hear.

Haydn, though, is so unpredictable that you are always caught off guard, especially when a conductor appreciates the comic timing. Slatkin does. He has a nice way with Haydn. He can act a bit pompous, but he does have a sense of humor. He phrases warmly. He gets a pleasantly plush sound that isn't too big for the music.

Ligeti attempts to up Haydn's ante in his own concerto, but not by much. Here the unpredictable can range from funny sounds (the slide whistle has a prominent role in the second movement, and tunings are odd) to extremely unsettling rhythmic figures that sound like clocks operating in different time frames. Ligeti's concerto is a dizzying environment of quantum physics and loony tunes from our own crazy century.

When Slatkin had first conducted the concerto with a rhythmically challenged St. Louis Symphony and a pianist not up to the dazzling solo part, the piece barely survived. This time the pianist was Pierre-Lauent Aimard, who has made a specialty of it and the composer (he played Ligeti's next-to-impossible etudes on the orchestra's chamber music series Monday night). The Philharmonic, moreover, is well-versed in Ligeti by now, and the performance gave off an air of confidence amid all the confounding meters.

Still, the brilliance was mainly Aimard's, whose tone is glittery and who scoffs at mechanical impossibility. A restrained Slatkin, devoted to keeping things together, appeared less able to transcend technique and revel in Ligeti's marvelous inventions.

Slatkin is not restrained, however, when there is music he can put his heart into. After intermission, he conducted Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1, and this is where all traces of Ligeti's world (and the modern world) disappeared. The score and its composer both have considerable currency these days, but there are those who understand the Barber revival better than I do. To these ears it is music that turns its back on the 20th century and on the progressive spirit of American music. Even so, I cannot imagine any conductor serving the symphony, which was written in the mid-'30s, any more dramatically than Slatkin did. Conducting with great Romantic indulgence, he appeared ready to suffer for every note, urging ever more expression from the orchestra. The effect was powerful, whatever one thinks of the symphony.

The program ended with Ravel's "La Valse,"written 15 years before the Barber symphony and representing a sound world that greatly influenced Barber. Yet it's a kind of obsessive unwinding of the Viennese waltz that ends in near debauchery, and obsessive unwinding and near debauchery aren't foreign to Ligeti's music. Slatkin, nonetheless, remained in Barber's spell, more emotive than sharp-witted, and, by evening's end, Ligeti receded again, a composer of the future.

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