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Music Review

Salonen Embraces Tchaikovsky With an Admirable Directness

November 21, 1998|DANIEL CARIAGA | TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Novelty in symphonic programming is a matter of context. A few years ago, a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony would have been business as usual. This week, under conductor/music director Esa-Pekka Salonen it is an unexpected occasion.

After all, Salonen, in his seven-year tenure at the Philharmonic, has not specialized in the music of Tchaikovsky; rather, his performances of the Russian composer's music have been limited. Salonen's conducting of "Francesca da Rimini," near the end of last season, however, was greeted with enthusiasm.

Thursday night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, one could admire the thrust and stylishness of Salonen's reading of the Sixth Symphony, as well as his clear affinity for two other works by Russian musicians, Balakivrev's colorful "Islamey" (in an unfamiliar-to-Los Angeles orchestration by Sergei Liapunov) and the 12-year-old Viola Concerto by Alfred Schnittke.

The "Pathetique" moved along a clear and followable path, the opening noble in expression, the march unabashedly brilliant and virtuosic, the finale effectively, pensively sad. Only the Allegro con grazia second movement came off less than charmingly, its true lightness deflected by a literalism that flattened its emotional details. A decent, well-displayed performance, not compelling but admirably honest.

Many more nuances surfaced in Schnittke's multi-hued Viola Concerto, played by the brilliant, endlessly resourceful soloist Yuri Bashmet (for whom it was written) with a knowingness that made it engrossing.

In what the Philharmonic annotator calls Schnittke's "stupefying melange of styles," the 30-minute piece speaks in a broad range of contrasting idioms, from a nightmarish atonality to arch diatonicism, with detours into other harmonic byways.

For all that, it is a piece that seduces and enthralls, often through unexpectedness, sometimes through a bracing emotional directness. Bashmet, Salonen and the orchestra collaborated perfectly. Only one detail marred the first L.A. Philharmonic performance of the piece: The photo on page P7 of the program book was not of Schnittke, but of Georgian composer Giya Kancheli.

The exotic overture was Balakirev's once-notorious piano piece transformed into a showy display of Rimsky-style orchestration by Liapunov. Oddly, "Islamey" has not been played by this orchestra since 1935 (in the Hollywood Bowl), when it was given in the Casella arrangement. It's a beaut, and worth reviving again, and soon.

* The L.A. Philharmonic will repeat this program Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., (323) 850-2000. $11-$65.

* Violist Bashmet appears on an L.A. Philharmonic Chamber Music Society concert, Monday, 7:30 p.m., Zipper Concert Hall, Colburn School, 200 S. Grand Ave. (323) 850-2000. $25.

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