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Score one for Atlanta

Robert Spano applies elements of the school's aesthetic to build a

February 14, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Robert Spano, guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, has wide sympathies. He is an all-American Romantic, Modernist and Postmodernist. He doesn't look the other way at experimentalism, pop or jazz.

Spano is music director of the Atlanta Symphony and the catapulting force for the Atlanta School of composers, a group of enterprising, eclectic Neo-Romantics who are increasingly trotted out to please timid audiences. On the other hand, Spano remains a valued and brilliant performer of probing, challenging and stylistically diverse music by John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho. He is drawn to the Russian Romantics and the pastoral Brits.

On Thursday, he was, as always when he conducts in L.A., an engaging, exceptionally capable presence. You could sense goodwill emanating from the stage. Everyone -- musicians, audiences, composers, students -- likes him.

The program -- which Spano and the Phil will repeat Saturday and Sunday -- was diverse. Spano began with a knockout performance of Varese's "Octandre." He has the gift for Gershwin, and he assured that his rambling Piano Concerto would be an amiable ramble indeed. He made a case for Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony, which needs a case made for it.

And yet the evening added up to less than a satisfying sum of its parts. That's often the case when Spano comes to town, and it's hard to understand why.

I've been puzzling over the program. Was this a subtle argument for the Atlanta School's retrograde aesthetics (the key figures, such as Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Theofanidis, are a poor fit for the more progressive L.A. Phil)? The program moved forward in time from 1923 to 1936 but became stylistically more conservative. Gershwin and Rachmaninoff had in common that they both died in Beverly Hills. Neither, though, was ever considered a West Coast composer, however much attention Hollywood paid them.

In the first half, "Octandre" somewhat set the tone for Gershwin's concerto in that both scores are adamantly New York urban. Varese's seven-minute score for seven winds and bass must have seemed to New York audiences in the Roaring '20s like a sonatina for car horns, screeching tires and buzzing airplanes. Melodic lines leap with determination, and Spano gave shine and allure to the octet's modernity while also getting it to sing and dance.

Gershwin, of course, brought the modernity of jazz to the concert hall. His Piano Concerto in F is more like a Conglomeration in F, one inspired passage leading to another with little worry about larger form. Spano's solution was a good one: He was the gracious host. First try this, which is really good, then this, which is fabulous. By the end, one was certainly full -- it is a long concerto -- but happy.

The soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays this concerto a lot, probably more than any other major pianist. He used to take it fairly straight, but the more he gets into jazz, the jazzier his Gershwin has become.

His playing wasn't quite as gaudy as his appearance: Thibaudet's coat, with its haphazard patchwork of satin pieces, was, I thought, a perfect visual representation of "Octandre." But his fingers flew.

The clattery tone, however, jarred. Gershwin is second nature to the L.A. Phil, and Spano eased it into a naturally smoky, bluesy, smooth sound. Against that, the piano was a foreign element. Still, Thibaudet's precision impresses.

Rachmaninoff's last symphony survives for its longing tune in the first movement. No one could quite pull off the triumph of melancholy like this Russian did. He broods. He lifts his spirits with inventive counterpoint exercises. He comes up with freshly celebratory passages meant to blow the storm clouds away. But his big climaxes are empty. The tune, inexplicable in its mood, stays in the mind and all else is clutter.

Spano's baton here acted like a giant broom industriously sweeping away that clutter. I've not heard a more upbeat, brighter-eyed or more bushy-tailed Rachmaninoff Third. It was almost without doubts. The enthusiasm worked up to a point, making even the boring bits pleasing. The orchestra played well. But it's a long symphony.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

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

When: 8 tonight, 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $42 to $147

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

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