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L.A. Phil has smooth flight

The orchestra's dynamic program builds to a dramatic finish with Holst's `The Planets.'

March 10, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Leonard Slatkin led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an energetic three-part program that embarked on terra firma and ended in outer space Thursday -- all at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The young poetic Chinese pianist Yundi Li was the soloist in Liszt's centrally placed Piano Concerto No. 1.

Steve Reich's Triple Quartet, which opened the concert, put the audience on a train irresistibly, relentlessly heading toward unknown destinations. Composed in 1999, it was originally played by one live quartet against two that were prerecorded. At Disney, it was performed by three ensembles of 12 musicians each, with a group on either side of the conductor and a third in front of him.

Lasting about 15 minutes, the Minimalist piece unfolded as a single movement, but it divided into three sections: a propulsive opener, a lyrical center and a fast close. The expansion and contraction of textures, as well as the kaleidoscopic overlapping layers of rhythmic and melodic motifs continually fascinated.

What started as pure energetic movement, however, quickly began to evoke broader themes, as the sounds of Eastern European musical styles somehow surfaced. Reich actually allowed himself to wax a bit sentimental about his Jewish heritage in the central section.

Here, concertmaster Alexander Treger initiated a slow, plaintive melody that was soon picked up by assistant concertmaster Mark Baranov and other single, then multiple, members of the different groups. The closing section called to mind the joy and energy of a Hasidic dance.

Beyond its immense technical challenges, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 is not an easy work to bring off as more than a bombastic showpiece. Slatkin and Li, for all his talent, could not make its quilt-like patches cohere in an organic, much less profound, whole.

Li attacked the fiendish machine-gun octaves that open the work with thunderous authority. He also brought a crystalline, although sometimes too hard-edged purity of tone to his duties. But he did not have a broad palette of colors to draw from, even in his quieter, more introspective passages.

Slatkin let him have center stage, although the lushness of the strings supplied a warmth missing from Li's playing.

The program concluded with Holst's cinematic showpiece, "The Planets," an orchestral suite composed from 1914 to 1917 that has inspired numerous, far less distinctive film scores.

Slatkin is an expert in making this score come alive, and Disney Hall is just the place to let the Philharmonic strut its stuff.

Bolstered by the power of the hall's organ, "Mars," with its Technicolor terror and whiff of heroism, was harrowing. "Jupiter" resounded most jollily, with its English folk-tune-like procession suggesting an RAF anthem as counterpart to the mindless juggernaut of "Mars." "Saturn" anguished about old age, and "Uranus" proved a trickster magician.

In "Neptune," the women of the Pacific Chorale intoned their wordless mystical chorus high above the audience at the back of the hall to close the piece. All in all, "The Planets" once again became a guilty pleasure.


Los Angeles Philharmonic

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

When: 2 p.m. today and Sunday

Price: $15 to $135

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or

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