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Breathing new life into Brahms, Dvorak

April 24, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Aimez-vous Brahms?

And would you love him without the beard and beer belly? Without the cigar and sentimentality? Would you still love him were he less Hamburg burgher and more Parisian boulevardier, hanging out at Les Deux Magots wearing the latest hip-hugging jeans, flower print shirt and tight black jacket, drinking an espresso, smoking a Gauloise, reading Derrida, listening to Balinese gamelan, French rapper Busta Flex and Boulez on the black iPod nano around his neck?

Would you? If you were at the Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts in Walt Disney Concert Hall over the weekend, you had a chance to find out.

Brahms' hearty pot roast of a piano concerto -- the First, in D minor -- was on the menu. The soloist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard, France's best-known new music pianist. Accompanying was the spirited American conductor David Robertson, former music director of the Paris new music group the Ensemble Intercontemporain, to which Aimard also once belonged.

Besides a passion for the new, Aimard and Robertson share an enormous curiosity and a vast repertory (both make it a point of pride to hardly ever repeat a program). You never know what either will do next. Even so, Brahms' concerto was a daring choice and one that may make it hard for them now to get past the guards at IRCAM, the ultramodern underground computer music facility where the Ensemble Intercontemporain originated.

But as a nouveau Brahms that might accompany a nouveau Beaujolais, the performance Saturday night was fascinating. Gone was the meaty heaviness and the thickening flour of Brahms' soupy orchestration.

This is early Brahms, a young man taking on his gods, outdoing Beethoven's piano concertos in size and thunder, paying tribute to Bach in technique. Timpani rumble, horns roar as they never had in a piano concerto. The pianist must get a plump sound to be heard above it all.

Aimard doesn't have that traditionally big, Romantic sound. All sparkle and color, he is, instead, a fireworks master, able to create tonal explosions full of bright light. And there were times in this brisk, stimulating performance when I barely recognized the concerto.

In the first movement, Robertson had the horns playing with a strange braying quality that sounded distinctly modern and French. In the slow movement, Aimard sometimes got caught up in Brahmsian abstraction, doing his best to allow dissonance to hang in the air unresolved. This must have been what Schoenberg heard when he said he was Brahms' next step.

But the thrills and trills weren't merely intellectual; had they been, the audience would probably not have cheered quite so excitedly. Robertson and Aimard are both intensely visceral musicians able to translate brain waves into athleticism. Perhaps what surprised me most, after the rainbow colors coming out of this music, was the quality of dance. The final movement was not balletic so much as ballistic, a modern dance with every step a Mark Morris kind of surprise.

Given the expectations Robertson set up, he might well have followed Brahms with some Schoenberg. But he did the unexpected by doing the conventional. After intermission, he conducted the much-loved lyric Eighth Symphony of Dvorak, the composer who absorbed Brahms in the most predictable fashion. But Robertson led the work with such zeal that it too became brand-new again.

In his program note, Dennis Bade spoke of the symphony's "bucolic euphoria." That, of course, is what draws us to this irresistible score. But Robertson found something else -- sheer unembarrassed exhilaration. His was an American Dvorak, not in seeking more "New World"-style pseudo-Americanisms, but in letting everything rip. This time, Robertson showed us Charles Ives was the step after Dvorak.

A fantastic rhythmic sense, spectacular enthusiasm and an unending supply of new ideas are part of Robertson's arsenal. Now in his first season as music director of the St. Louis Symphony, he has already transformed a struggling orchestra and put it in the center of American musical life. New York, Boston and Chicago all have their eyes on him.

L.A., though, has been slow to jump on the Robertson bandwagon; this was only the third appearance with the Philharmonic for the native Santa Monican. Overly gregarious, he doesn't reputedly have the easiest time with the orchestra. But maybe that has now changed. In the best possible sort of homecoming, he brought to Dvorak's symphony a rapture that not even the grumpiest of players seemed capable of ignoring.

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