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Bombast at the Bowl

Conductor Juraj Valcuha makes his L.A. Phil debut as pianist

August 29, 2009|Richard S. Ginell

Things returned to the usual, midsummer, midweek routine at Hollywood Bowl Thursday night after the sold-out Placido Domingo/Yo-Yo Ma Event two days earlier. No epic traffic snarls -- or at least nothing out of the ordinary. No jammed lines at the turnstiles. The concert started on time. Back to normalcy, as they used to say in Warren Harding's day.

Presiding over Classical Thursday this time was a young Slovakian conductor, Juraj Valcuha (born 1976), who was making his first appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (his bio only lists one previous U.S. appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2007-08).

Based in Paris, he has been making the rounds of European opera houses and symphony halls, patiently gathering credits. Apparently his chief instrument at the Bratislava Conservatory was the cimbalom -- an unusual one for a conductor.

As seen on the podium and the Bowl big screens, Valcuha doesn't cut a particularly arresting profile -- his gestures appear to be a bit stiff at times -- but he did get some results in some arresting music. He could produce a nicely rousing, militant response in the big marches of Wagner's Overture to "Rienzi" -- the only music we generally hear from that now-obscure early opera -- enforcing clear, blaring textures.

Valcuha made fine, sufficiently humorous and graceful work of Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" after intermission, featuring spot-on opening horn solos by William Lane and well-characterized wind interplay. Right after that, he concluded the evening with the most-often-heard suite from Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" as purportedly stitched together by Artur Rodzinski and approved by the composer. Although the suite makes a hash of the opera's story line, it is a cleverly unified concert piece in its own right -- and though Valcuha's not-quite-seamless transitions made it seem choppy, the Philharmonic played it quite well.

Now for the not-so-arresting music -- Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2, which took the place of the originally announced Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 before intermission. Lately, the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has been defying his fastidiously refined reputation by selecting touring pieces that encourage him to play out more boldly and aggressively. So it was with Liszt -- bombs away, stabbing at the bass, launching the jumping chords with gusto, with an orchestral accompaniment that underlined the piece's crude, rude aspects. For the occasion, the Philharmonic resurrected Orrin Howard's classic program notes from years ago, which candidly zinged the finale's march as "one of Liszt's most dismaying indulgences."

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