An all-Brahms concert may sound like an awfully rich meal, even during the holiday season. It wouldn't be surprising if, afterward, concert-goers felt overstuffed. Yet the near-capacity audience cheered like it still had room for more, testimony to the enduring popularity of this composer.
On Saturday, Marin Alsop and the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought the "Tragic" Overture, Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 1 to Walt Disney Concert Hall.
It was familiar programming characterized by relatively unfamiliar faces. Alsop, who last year became the first female music director of a major American orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony), is a welcome, if infrequent, visitor to the Southland. The violin soloist, Nikolaj Znaider, a rising 33-year-old Dane, was making his Disney Hall debut.
In the opening "Tragic" Overture, the conductor led a well-paced performance of exuberant intensity, drawing a richly textured sound from the strings, especially the dusky violas. The thrust of her reading, which she conducted without a score, signaled her special authority with Brahms, and that command continued in the formidable Violin Concerto.
Znaider managed the feat of communicating equally well with the audience and the orchestra. A big guy at 6 feet, 3 inches tall, he prefers to perform sideways to the audience, giving them a full frontal view of the violin instead of his face, and turns to the orchestra when not playing. Yet his connection to the music was almost palpable.
In the concerto, Znaider seemed to be struggling with his instrument, a 1741 Guarnerius del Gesu that once belonged to Fritz Kreisler. The opening sections were sweetly lyrical, summoning Kreisler's genial ghost. But as the piece progressed, the sheer physicality and effort of Znaider's playing began to show.
Someone once observed that the work is "a concerto for violin against orchestra -- and the violin wins." It's a massive work -- the first movement alone is a mini-symphony. Its traditional Joachim cadenza was somewhat untidy, though it held the audience rapt. Yet Znaider's striving became an integral part of his muscular interpretation.
And though Alsop's concentrated attention on her soloist occasionally made her reading sound a bit too careful, the orchestra's momentum never flagged. Special mention must be made of oboist Ariana Ghez in the Andante's opening melody. Her playing, rapturously supported by the entire wind section, soared. Still, the violin won.
After intermission, Znaider, a budding conductor himself, joined the Philharmonic's violin section for an Alsop specialty: the Symphony No. 1. Again, she conducted from memory, having wisely used a score for the Concerto.
The conductor took the measure of Brahms' conception from its ominous beginning to its triumphant finale of blaring trombones and horns. An overly searching account of this work, with its constantly shifting landscapes of darkness and light, can easily turn fussy and overblown. But Alsop successfully balanced the extremes of the symphony's tragic aura.