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So satisfying on several levels

October 14, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

That rare breed, a viola concerto, showed off the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the acoustic of the Walt Disney Concert Hall about as well as Mussorgsky's mighty "Pictures at an Exhibition" did in a three-part program Thursday.

Esa-Pekka Salonen led the U.S. premiere of Brett Dean's Viola Concerto, a work co-commissioned by the Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, Symphony Australia and the Sydney Symphony. The BBC Symphony led by Rumon Gamba gave the world premiere in April 2005.

Dean, an Australian composer who was also a member of the Berlin Philharmonic for 15 years, was the soloist.

Before the performance, he and Salonen spoke briefly from the stage. Salonen pointed out that the era of composers who performed their concertos (think Bach through Bartok) had ended as specialization in one field or the other took precedence by the mid-20th century. So it was significant to hear Dean playing his own work.

"It doesn't get any more authentic than that," Salonen said.

For his part, Dean said that once he gets on the stage, "I don't think of it as my piece anymore."

The work, running about 22 minutes, is in three movements -- a short introduction titled "Fragment," a vivid chase ("Pursuit") and a dark elegy ("Veiled and Mysterious"). Each title describes the atmosphere, musical gestures and implied narrative in the movements.

The first began with a hushed, arresting expectancy, barely on the threshold of sound, out of which the viola emerged to trace a high-lying, exploratory melody. The longer, scherzo-like second movement turned from a hunt to a dance and back again as the viola and orchestra seemed to shift leadership roles. The third returned to a world of stasis, meditation and lament, to end with English horn player Carolyn Hove circling around a point of stillness while the viola evaporated into the heights.

Each element of Dean's brilliant orchestration could be savored, as well as his own virtuosic playing.

The Philharmonic's New Music Group will also offer two of his pieces -- "Voices of Angels" and "Pastoral Symphony" -- on Tuesday at Disney Hall in its Green Umbrella series.

Haydn's Symphony No. 82 ("The Bear"), which opened the program, is the first of six "Paris" symphonies commissioned in the mid-1780s by a Freemason society of that city and applauded by royalty of the day, including Marie Antoinette.

Salonen's approach was fit for such a blue-blooded audience -- precise, elegant, scintillating and clear. Not for him any of the quicksilver twists, turns and sly jokes Twyla Tharp found in the music for her 1976 ballet "Push Comes to Shove." The rustics, whose droning bass gives rise to the work's subtitle, are outside the palace windows, at a far distance. For its part, the orchestra responded instantly and decisively to the conductor's every sweep, cue and cutoff.

The program closed with Mussorgsky's "Pictures" in the familiar Ravel orchestration. It was a ravishing showpiece for the orchestra and the hall. A detail as small as a single note plucked on a harp could be heard adding a distinctive color to a phrase, while the huge climax was viscerally thrilling. For all the many excellent solo contributions, principal trumpeter Donald Green must be singled out, if only for the plaintive arguments in the section characterizing two Polish Jews.


Los Angeles Philharmonic

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

When: 8 tonight, 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $15 to $135

Contact: (323) 850-2000,

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