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Interpreting the blueprints

Visiting L.A., Christoph von Dohnanyi lays out Brahms' architecture but could build more.

February 17, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

At 77, conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi is an elder statesman who knows what's necessary and what's superfluous in a performance. Music director of the Cleveland Orchestra for nearly two decades, he's fought all the battles many times, filtering out striking personal inflections and paring down interpretive extremes to focus on grand architectural structures.

Such were the virtues on hand when he opened a survey of Brahms' symphonies with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This week, he's leading the Third and First, in that order. Next week, he will conclude the cycle with the Fourth and Second.

At least one listener, however, would have liked a little more madness and passion, more individual voice from conductor and players -- in short, more of an old-fashioned romantic approach to the works. Yet at the end of the First Symphony, Dohnanyi had an energized audience applauding, stomping its feet and even whistling (which is rarely done in the hall) before the final chord had finished.

Dohnanyi had requested that the orchestra perform on a flat stage instead of on its usual risers, with only the winds slightly raised. He wanted this arrangement, according to a Philharmonic spokesman, to achieve the blended sound he felt appropriate for Brahms. But this seating led to moments of uncharacteristic ragged ensemble, as if the musicians were struggling to find new sonic footing.

Dohnanyi opened the Third Symphony with magisterial authority, the strings playing in arresting, powerfully unified, crystal-clear lines. He maintained a lean, muscular drive throughout the movement, indeed throughout the work -- never much relaxing the tension, exploiting contrasts of themes or attempting to beguile the ear -- although the violas emerged gorgeously rich in the slow movement. He was perhaps cleaning accumulated dirt off an old painting. But does Brahms need to sound like Ravel?

A hint of resignation surfaced immediately in the First Symphony, as if a veteran warrior had been summoned to the struggle once more. He would prevail, but it would be through careful, formal strategies rather than through passionate, titanic outer and inner battles.

Fortunately, concertmaster Martin Chalifour provided much-appreciated personal fervor in his solo at the end of the slow movement. In the last movement, William Lane intoned the Alpine horn solo with melancholy power, the trombones played their chorale theme nobly and the big tune swept all before it to the finish. Dohnanyi and the orchestra triumphed.

It was a decisive victory, but not a great one.


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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