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Conductor gives sterling voice to composers

Nott draws out some subtleties of Korngold and Mahler that aren't usually detected.

October 22, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Though a composer of operas and concert works, Erich Wolfgang Korngold is remembered as the emigre who romanticized Hollywood by ushering in the lush symphonic sound of 1930s films.

He was also among the first composers to give the concert hall a taste of Hollywood. His Violin Concerto, finished in 1945, contains tunes from "Anthony Adverse," "Another Dawn" and other movies.

Jascha Heifetz put the concerto on the map when he recorded it on a soundstage in 1953 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And, in one of the weirder bits of programming, this oldie-but-goodie has now helped put on the American map a dynamic 42-year-old British conductor best known for his exceptional ability to unknot the most tangled of modern scores.

Korngold's concerto opened the Los Angeles Philharmonic program Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Jonathan Nott was on the podium. It was his first time conducting a major American orchestra. He followed the concerto with a riveting performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. A major talent has arrived.

Nott has been music director of the Bamberg Symphony for five years, during which he has turned a provincial band into what some observers are calling Germany's second orchestra (the Berlin Philharmonic being glued to the throne).

He just stepped down from the music directorship of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, where he proved his command of Modernism.

But it may have taken Korngold to prove that Nott can work miracles. While sensitively supporting his classy soloist, Martin Chalifour, he performed a feat of outright musical alchemy. He turned corn into gold.

Nott and Chalifour, the Philharmonic's concertmaster, are musicians of our time who prize textural clarity, rhythmic precision and meticulous intonation. But neither is a technique freak.

Displaying a playful touch, Chalifour reminded me of Fred Astaire singing, the way he could make you think he was both inside a song and outside it, true to its sentiment but also ever-so-knowingly commenting on its sentiment. Likewise, Chalifour deftly let us know he was manipulating us while making us glad that he was.

Meanwhile, Nott wanted the orchestra to make every phrase matter. I had never before noticed any number of details in the orchestral writing. But more than that, I had never noticed what a finely made concerto this is.

Unlike Samuel Barber, whose contemporaneous concerto was played by Izhak Perlman and the National Symphony in Disney the night before, Korngold seemed to want nothing more from his Romanticism than winning a smile from the audience.

Nott conducted Mahler's Fourth without a score, and he did so as if he himself were playing all the parts. He got as close to being inside the orchestra as a conductor can get. He clearly puts a huge premium on transparency, which always pays dividends in Mahler, because there are so many things going on in the orchestra.

To hear so clearly, for instance, how the composer put flutes and sleigh bells together at the beginning to create new sounds was to immediately be put in a contemporary frame of mind. That's what electronic music composers do.

Perhaps what was most interesting, though, was Nott's overall approach to Mahler's magical, supposedly least angst-ridden symphony. Magical it was, but the magic was often dark, the symphony becoming here a wonderland of strange goings-on.

Nott delighted in the way folk tunes can go astray in Mahler, in the shifting harmonic ground, and he threw one sucker punch after another. The effect was like the thrill of a roller coaster, where you reach a peak, enjoy for a second the beautiful view and then are plunged forward, your stomach in your mouth.

Nott relented at the end, where Mahler asked a soprano to sing of the heavenly life. Mary Wilson did so prettily but with a slight tremor in her voice.

Do the players like this conductor as much as many of us in the hall obviously did? I can't speak for them, only for what they did. And what they did was give him their all. This was a performance in which every section competed to sound the best in the orchestra.

Nott is not the only great Mahler conductor in our midst, and he obviously has learned from mentors. Boulez appears to be his model. But in Thursday's Fourth Symphony (as on his Bamberg recording of the Fifth), he demonstrated that he has found his own voice. It is one that orchestras everywhere should be clamoring to hear.


Los Angeles Philharmonic

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

When: 8 tonight

Price: $15 to $129

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or

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