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Mickelthwate, Philharmonic pass Boulez test

January 19, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDER Mickelthwate has been a fearless assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. No musical style seems to faze him. His technique is first-rate, his beat reassuringly precise. So Tuesday night, the orchestra simply threw him to the lions. The leader of the lion pack was Pierre Boulez.

The confrontation took place at a Green Umbrella concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program began with Gyorgy Ligeti's 1970 Chamber Concerto, in which 13 instruments act like machines with minds of their own and must be kept on an extremely tight leash. The evening ended with Boulez's famed "Le Marteau Sans Maitre." Classic this 1955 score may be, but its formidable difficulty keeps it typically confined to top-flight new music groups.

Both of these works have exerted enormous influence over new music, but that hardly means they have lost their ability to terrify musicians. No one in the Philharmonic's New Music Group looked remotely comfortable Tuesday night. No one, that is, except Mickelthwate.

Ligeti's concerto entertains the way Kafka entertains. Terror is never terribly far from the absurd surface, but the level of indignation is so great that it becomes almost enjoyable. Ligeti's instruments scurry this way and that. They play between the cracks of the scale. Their harmonies in the slow movement are piercing. The ensemble breaks up from time to time and then comes back together a bit the worse for wear. There is a profundity in all this, but one that is very hard to put your finger on.

Before "Marteau," which was the concert's second half, Mickelthwate yielded the podium to Joana Carneiro, the Philharmonic's conducting fellow, for songs by Stravinsky and Ravel sung by soprano Hila Plitmann. Stravinsky's "Two Poems of Constantin Balmont" and "Three Japanese Lyrics" show the composer working up to his "Rite of Spring" style. The texts are in Russian, and the poetic imagery depicts nature as elliptical and unknowable. Ravel's "Three Poems of Stephane Mallarme" make the surreal voluptuous.

There was little mystery in Plitmann's direct if capable singing, but Carneiro supplied the needed sensuality, making everything flow wonderfully.

It has taken a long time for listeners to appreciate that the startling disjointedness of "Marteau" -- for alto flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba, percussion and mezzo-soprano -- is also, above all, voluptuous music. Three of its nine movements use surreal texts by Rene Char (the title translates as "The Hammer Without a Master"). "I dream Peru on the point of my knife" is the last line of the first poem, "Furious Artisans Guild."

The voluptuousness in this performance came notably from Janna Baty. Usually any mezzo who can handle this score finds it necessary to produce a dry tone in order to maintain pitch, to negotiate the quicksilver irregular rhythms and to fit into a mostly sharp-edged ensemble.

Baty's, however, is a rich low voice, more alto than mezzo. She sang in full bloom. She didn't imitate an instrumentalist. She brought warmth and humanity to cold, angry texts. She reminded us that "Marteau" contains inspired melody, unpredictable though it may be.

Mickelthwate conducted very much in the Boulez manner: calm under pressure, sure of ever-changing meters and ready to help with cues for any tricky entrances. (Actually, all the entrances in "Marteau" are tricky.) The ensemble played the notes with acceptable accuracy. The changing sound worlds -- lyrical flute and viola contrast with bright percussion -- came through reasonably well. These players have just about mastered the masterless hammer.

If they remained a step away from transcending the hammer -- the way Baty did and the way Boulez is able to get players to when there is enough rehearsal time -- this was still an effective performance, even a remarkable one. I'd be surprised if there are symphony orchestra musicians anywhere who could better tame this wild beast.

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