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Welser-Most Proves Inspiring Conductor

March 13, 2000|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Franz Welser-Most has been a frequent and popular guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the 1990s, as he has been with many other American orchestras. Dashing, youthful and sometimes interpretively controversial, he appears to be one of the hopes for a new generation of Austrian musicians, eager to invigorate his native classics and unafraid of the present or the larger world.

Increasingly, he has been willing to tweak sensibilities. Last season, for instance, this "outsider" to American musical life brought to the New York Philharmonic a program that paired the echt-Californian multicultural composer Lou Harrison with the echt-Austrian 19th century symphonist, Anton Bruckner.

Now, however, Welser-Most, who is in our midst for two weeks with the L.A. Philharmonic, is about to become an "insider," a shaper of the landscape of American music. In 2002, he will take over as music director of the great Cleveland Orchestra. Bruckner was on the bill at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night, with the Sixth Symphony as the featured work. But nothing these days seems too likely to wrest the Philharmonic from its determined neglect of the 82-year-old Harrison, the dean of California music. The opening work was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, with the young Austrian pianist Till Fellner as soloist.

The Beethoven was tame; the Bruckner was not.

The cheekiest of the nine symphonies (and one of the shortest), the Sixth begins with a characteristic driving Bruckner rhythm that carries the movement forward with the insistence of a 19th century Philip Glass. It is, of course, possible to slow it down and think of Bruckner in spiritual terms. "For me, the fact of Bruckner's existence is God's greatest gift," the late Romanian cultist conductor, Sergiu Celibidache, is quoted as saying on his recently issued hypnotic and otherworldly recording of a Sixth lasting 65 minutes. Welser-Most, on this night, was very much of this world with a vigorous, exhilarating, up-to-date 54-minute-long reading.

Love for Bruckner is not a universal emotion among music devotees. Those smitten, like Wagnerians, often lose their senses, while skeptics worry about the lumpy piety of the symphonies, flinch at the thick orchestral sonorities, tire of the harmonic waywardness and the contrapuntal complexities, and are worn down by the long-winded development sections.

Welser-Most addressed all those concerns freshly, yet without, I suspect, alienating most of the devout. His sense of rhythm and momentum are very exciting. He shapes a melodic phrase beautifully. He managed to achieve rich orchestral textures without any clotting. And he found that thin line between propulsion and rushing.

He also clearly inspired the orchestra. The Philharmonic was once master of lavish Viennese Bruckner sonorities under former music directors Zubin Mehta and Carlo Maria Giulini. Welser-Most borrowed just enough of that old sound to create a beautiful glow when he needed it, particularly in the Adagio. But he seemed more inclined to exploit the vital, edgy, turn-of-the-millennium brilliance the orchestra has obtained under Esa-Pekka Salonen to give the symphony--one of Bruckner's brightest--a true modern sheen. It seemed a combination that, along with the sense of surety of shape and drama, the players liked very much. Welser-Most had to tug hard and repeatedly at concertmaster Martin Chalifour to get the orchestra to stand for a bow. A rare tribute for a conductor.

If Welser-Most did not show the same flair for Beethoven as for Bruckner, his unfailing musicianship meant a performance never less than respectfully elegant. It may have been, partly, in deference to his young, sincere soloist who weighed and gauged every note with extreme care. Fellner has a sparkling touch and a tone of luminous warmth, but despite a certain bounce, his playing is yet more dutiful than individual (he was born in 1972 but looks half his age).

Thus, on this rare occasion, the symphony by the stodgy middle-aged Bruckner--not the concerto by a youthfully exuberant Beethoven--seemed to have cornered the snappy youth market. And that was certainly all the more reason to bemoan such ineffectively timorous programming for Welser-Most and a supposedly cutting-edge orchestra. But the Bruckner did just as certainly indicate that Cleveland has something to look forward to.

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