Osmo Vanska is a vivid conductor. He's a deft musician, an intensely physical leader, a manic musical chef whose hands and arms never stop stirring, chopping, blending, stirring some more. He seems everywhere at once, making sure that each section of the orchestra and each individual instrument does his bidding. The sounds he gets are intense, resonant, three-dimensional, powerfully inviting. He goes in for loud, blow-you-away climaxes.
What Vanska wants, Vanska gets.
The Finnish conductor has been a big hit stirring, chopping, blending in Minneapolis since taking over the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003. He was a big hit with the audience at UCLA on Thursday night when he made a last-minute Los Angeles debut conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra at UCLA.
Kurt Masur, the LPO's music director since 2000, became ill last weekend while conducting in Dublin and was rushed to the hospital during intermission. He is now recovering from a viral flu. It is not yet known whether he will be able to rejoin the orchestra on its U.S. tour, which began Wednesday in Santa Barbara and reaches the Orange County Performing Arts Center next week. Though a more sober interpreter than Vanska, Masur's a control freak as well.
So what happens when one control freak fills in for another? I can't cite the physical or psychological laws involved, but what transpired Thursday in Royce Hall had something to do with more becoming an unreasonably whole lot more but seeming like less.
Vanska accepted Masur's relatively lightweight program of engaging early works by Benjamin Britten, Mozart and Richard Strauss, along with Khachaturian's gooey Violin Concerto, and made everything equally heavy. In fact, he made it weigh a ton.
I suppose the critic's job here is to try to distinguish between the levels of showing off that were gaudily on display in Royce. Like Esa-Pekka Salonen and the many other Finnish conductors spectacularly populating the international scene, Vanska is a product of Helsinki's Sibelius Academy. But he is also, in a way, the anti-Esa-Pekka. Salonen sided with the Modernists; Vanska fell in with the neo-Romantics.
He built his career not on the international stage but in the small Finnish town of Lahti, at the same time attracting international attention for hyperemotional, flashily recorded CDs of Sibelius rarities.
Like Vanska in Lahti, the LPO also has an outsider image. Of the five major London orchestras, it ranks near the bottom in reputation. The London Symphony is the most glamorous. The Philharmonia is known for its spunk. The BBC Symphony is adventurous and not only media savvy but part of the media. Only the languishing Royal Philharmonic gets less respect than the LPO.
But just as he did with the New York Philharmonic, Masur, a well-known disciplinarian, has clearly whipped the LPO into shape. I might even say that the LPO sounded too good Thursday, which is where Vanska comes in. He began by blowing up Britten's "Simple Symphony" into an overinflated "Strenuous Symphony."
A minor score for string orchestra written by an impossibly bright and clever but still dorky teenager, the slight symphony charms with its promise of things to come. Here, Vanska got from the LPO such an intense, extraordinary, suffocating thick string sound that the "Sentimental Sarabande" slow movement became pompously lugubrious.
Pomp weighted down Mozart's Symphony No. 29 too. Vanska almost got away with his big-orchestra approach, because he is such an accomplished detail man, able to bring out all kinds of little inner lines without ever breaking up the larger line of the piece. Still, early Mozart can be only so sonically heavy without seeming lumbering.
After intermission, a showy young violinist, Sergey Khachatryan, was the sensation in the Khachaturian Violin Concerto. Even the program notes, a fraction the size of those for the evening's other works, avoided the issue of the music, barely bothering to defend this once-popular Soviet score by an Armenian composer.
Yet there could be no question that Khachatryan believes wholeheartedly in the concerto. Born in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1985, he is a soulful young violinist with a dazzling technique. He seemed to know exactly how much sentiment was needed where, and how much bravura.
Vanska, however, didn't. His too assertive, too poignant approach sounded, in this score, phony. Khachatryan has just made a beautiful recording of Sibelius' Violin Concerto (in a pairing with the Khachaturian), and it's too bad Vanska couldn't have been accompanying that.
Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" was a very noisy conclusion to a long, noisy night. It was not merry. It was overbearing. The LPO played superbly, and once more many interesting details emerged from the massive onslaught. But enough was enough.