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MUSIC REVIEW

The Phil blazes in Russian works

October 11, 2008|Rick Schultz | Special to The Times

Never underestimate hero worship as a factor in a musician's life. Stravinsky's childhood hero was Tchaikovsky, and Esa-Pekka Salonen has made no secret of his deep admiration for Stravinsky.

And, as it happens, both Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky were extraordinarily well served Thursday by Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a night that began with Stravinsky's "Fireworks," an early piece, and concluded with "The Firebird," the ballet that established his fame.

But before "The Firebird" came Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, which Salonen last conducted almost 15 years ago at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Why did he avoid this surefire hit for so long? Perhaps because maverick conductors are rarely interested in surefire hits.

Surprisingly, Yefim Bronfman, the soloist, is also a relative newcomer to this warhorse. The work is so big, splashy and openhearted that many listeners might be forgiven for thinking that Russians are born playing it. Bronfman is a native of the former Soviet Union, but as he revealed in a Times profile Wednesday, he added the work to his repertoire only five years ago.

It sounded so fresh in his hands. In a truly spectacular performance of surging energy, Bronfman and Salonen almost brought the audience to its feet. And that was just after the first movement. Their reading was not for the faint of heart, with the pianist generating edge-of-your-seat thrills and digging deep into the keyboard, producing a rich and sparkling sonority. Yet he was equally convincing in the lovely Andantino's delicate repose.

The relatively short Allegro finale is usually anticlimactic, but Bronfman's virtuosity -- including spine-tingling climactic double octaves -- and crisp interchanges with the orchestra added necessary balance.

As if this wasn't enough, after a thunderous standing ovation, Bronfman offered a subtly rendered encore: Scarlatti's Sonata in C minor.

After intermission, Salonen did the near impossible. He made us forget about the Tchaikovsky concerto, slowly enfolding us in the complete version of "The Firebird."

Not many conductors can sustain the dramatic arc of this score without dancers or sets. But Salonen's expertly paced, brilliantly colored "Firebird" was spellbinding, like a marvelous dream. The Philharmonic performed with breathtaking precision.

The ardent featured playing included Mathieu Dufour's magical flute, Ariana Ghez's celestial oboe, Donald Green's trumpet, William Lane's horn and Steven Witser's trombone.

As for Salonen, who will embark with the Philharmonic on an Asian tour next week, he's that rare bird: a conductor who sees the forest and the trees.

--

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 2 p.m. today and Sunday. $17 to $125. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

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