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Pondering the mood of nations' past

March 06, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

In the Oscar-winning documentary "The Fog of War," Robert S. McNamara describes just how much closer we came to war with the Soviet Union in the '60s than most people realized. Philip Glass' seductive music for the film -- mechanistically moody but not expressive of any specific emotion -- well underscores the former Defense secretary's point that this had less to do with ideology than with a process that had gotten out of hand.

As it happens, two works performed Thursday night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered a little insight into the sensibilities that ultimately led to the Cuban missile crisis. The lesson came courtesy of the music director of the National Symphony, Leonard Slatkin, on hand for his first appearances in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The works in question were Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Copland's Third Symphony. Both were written at the end of World War II. The Russian concerto is gloomy and irascible. The American symphony is noisily optimistic. Both pieces represented a national mood.

The nastiness of the Russian situation -- Nazi depredations followed by Stalin's dictatorship -- profoundly affected Shostakovich's concerto. Written in four movements like a symphony, it begins with a haunting nocturne, continues with a macabre scherzo, turns dire with a pessimistic passacaglia and finally brings the house down with a flashy, grotesque finale.

David Oistrakh, for whom it was written, complained that the solo line was uncomfortable for a violinist's fingers. That may have been an analogue for the composer's clenched fists, for Shostakovich, fearing Stalin, finished the work in 1948 but kept it to himself. It wasn't premiered until 1955.

Copland's celebratory symphony has the same grand structure and sequence of movements -- from nocturnal beginning to bombastic finish -- as this concerto. Copland's slow movement even begins with music very much like that of Shostakovich's opening movement.

But the tone is radically different. Copland hoped to write the Great American Symphony. He didn't quite make it, but he did capture something of the feeling of a proud America manically covering up its insecurities as it paraded into superpowerdom. Likewise, Copland revs up, then pulls back; revs up again, pulls back again.

Slatkin opened the final floodgates wider than usual Thursday by including a passage in the coda that adds clangor upon clangor. Copland had cut it, and Slatkin dug it out of the Library of Congress. Restored, it better places the symphony in its roseate epoch.

The Shostakovich and the Copland are tests of a conductor's organizational and dramatic skill. The Shostakovich, for which Sarah Chang was soloist, was not the searing emotional statement it can be. I suspect Shostakovich made the solo part so difficult in order to rattle Oistrakh. Making the consummate violinist appear apprehensive could only heighten the concerto's dramatic message. Chang's impressive feat was to proceed with confidence. She commands her instrument, but I missed the struggle.

Slatkin brought a more authentic sound to the Copland. He may not pay as much attention to orchestral balance as do some other conductors, and he didn't take full of advantage of Disney's sonic clarity, but he did achieve a majestic flow from beginning to spectacular end.

The program opened with the West Coast premiere of Roberto Sierra's "Fandangos," which Slatkin premiered with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in 2000. It is a tropical embellishment of a famous harpsichord fandango by the Baroque composer Antonio Soler. An unoriginal idea, it nonetheless pleases the ear. A more apt West Coast premiere would have been John Adams' weird 2001 "Guide to Strange Places," which Slatkin conducted the New York premiere of last week. Adams' strange place is America after the Cold War.


Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Today, 8 p.m.

Price: $35-$120

Contact: (323) 850-2000

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