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Music Review

Mendelssohn fits Conlon fine

February 28, 2009|Richard S. Ginell

James Conlon -- whose fuel reserves have been compared to those of the Energizer Bunny -- has been locked in overdrive this week, launching Los Angeles Opera's first Wagner "Ring" while also observing the Mendelssohn bicentennial with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is no doubt thankful that the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Walt Disney Concert Hall are right across the street from each other.

Actually, Mendelssohn is a great fit for Conlon right now since revisiting this composer could be considered an extension of the conductor's "Recovered Voices" project at L.A. Opera. Mendelssohn's music, after all, was banned by the Nazis, and we now know that there is a substantial hoard from his huge output that has never been published or heard. And of his scores that are available, maybe only a dozen or so are programmed regularly.

So in his usual spirit of mission, Conlon came to Disney Hall on Thursday night with a rarity that only record collectors know, it seems: the Symphony No. 1 in C minor. The philharmonic had never performed it before, and Conlon pointedly told us that he had never heard it played live unless he was conducting it.

Our loss. It's a great piece, shot through with fierce, rumbling, minor-key vigor, owing much to Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in particular and Beethoven in general but still stamped with its own sound. It becomes perhaps even more imposing when you consider that it was written by a boy of 15 -- albeit with 12 string symphonies under his belt.

Conlon didn't merely play the symphony through. He gave it a painstaking workout, fine-tuning weaker spots like the balance of the strings and winds in the third movement's trio and the phrasing of the pizzicato strings before the clarinet solo in the finale so that they shone. The philharmonic sounded enthused and charged up, with terrific wind playing and scintillating strings in the fugues.

Violinist Sarah Chang and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto did not make a good match to me. She played it stridently, with plenty of fire yet very little elegance, generating all kinds of little inflections that disrupted the piece's unity. But the audience loved it.

Finally, Conlon chose the three best-known selections from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- the miraculous Overture, the fleet-footed Scherzo and the ultra-familiar Wedding March. They were brilliantly handled -- especially the Scherzo -- with the same tempestuous Conlon energy that lighted up the First Symphony.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

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

When: 8 tonight

Price: $42 to $147

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

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