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Life's long musical journey

Led by Salonen, the Philharmonic opens its new subscription series with a splendid rendition of Mahler's Third Symphony.

October 02, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Mahler's Third Symphony, a mammoth, 90-minute contra-Darwin Darwinian essay, has marked key moments in the career of Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen first came to international acclaim in 1983, when he stepped in as a last-minute substitute for Michael Tilson Thomas after learning the score for it in a matter of days.

Mahler's Third was the first work he conducted as music director of the Philharmonic in 1992 and the last he led at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 2003 before the orchestra moved to the Walt Disney Concert Hall the following season.

Friday, he began the new subscription series at Disney Hall by again expertly presiding over Mahler's long traversal of life as it strenuously emerges from inanimate matter and moves up through the higher life-forms to the realm of the saints and the angels, a journey that ends with a beatific vision of the love that sparked it all.

Only this time, the superior Disney acoustics revealed the orchestra in splendid unity and detail unheard in its previous home.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung again richly sang the pivotal fourth-movement meditation on life and pain taken from Nietzsche's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and the penitent's confession in the fifth-movement "Bimm Bamm" chorus. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Children's Chorus and especially the women of the Pacific Chorale sounded underpowered and unclear in diction, so that the movement's joyful message of forgiveness lacked impact.

An adequate list of prominent orchestra soloists would necessarily be long. Suffice it to say that trombonist James Miller made the instrument a chilling voice of death. Trumpeter James Wilt played the offstage post-horn solo with affecting nostalgia. Horn player William Lane, amid marathon duties, sustained the most ethereal pianissimo behind Wilt's final phrases.

New principal oboist Ariana Ghez echoed Zarathustra's midnight laments tellingly. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour played sweetly.

None of this is to overlook the strings, which were pristine in clarity and sweep, especially in the upsurges in the cellos and basses; the winds, which reveled in a multitude of colors; the brass, secure in power and restraint; and an enlarged battery of percussion, including four cymbal players for the thrilling climactic vision.

Salonen, who conducted with a knowing hand, looked exhausted but happy as he acknowledged the audience's thunderous final applause.


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