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Music Review

Almost a statement

Marin Alsop thinks big with Mahler's Fifth but is constrained by Bowl

July 30, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Mahler's Fifth is a strong, bracing symphony. Marin Alsop, who performed it Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl to begin her two appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week, is a strong, bracing conductor.

The programming meant something. This is a big, 70-plus-minute symphony that begins in the realm of agitation and death and fights, fist and glove, to a happy end. The elegiac Adagietto movement, in which love and death mingle, is maybe Mahler's most famous music. Leonard Bernstein played it at Robert Kennedy's funeral. The New York Philharmonic played it to remember Bernstein when he died.

Alsop programmed the Fifth for her first concert as music director of the Baltimore Symphony two years ago. That occasion drew international attention because no woman had yet been asked to lead an orchestra so distinguished. Her appointment was initially controversial with the players but not audiences. Over the radio, her first concert was exciting, and Alsop is now one of America's leading conductors, irrespective of gender.

Big Mahler symphonies are ever statement-making. Esa-Pekka Salonen chose Mahler's Third for his first subscription concert as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1992; Alan Gilbert's first New York Philharmonic subscription concert in September will be, likewise, the Third. Gustavo Dudamel opens his first L.A. Philharmonic season at Walt Disney Concert Hall in October with the First.

We've come a long way in our Mahler zeal, though. Mahler is also played as everyday music, like a Haydn or Mendelssohn symphony. And that's where we get in trouble. Alsop's performance Tuesday was entirely credible, and under the typical Bowl circumstances of far too little rehearsal time, strong and bracing is very impressive.

But it isn't enough for nuance, and the concert was, I think, a poor way to judge her Mahler. I fell into that trap some years ago when David Zinman, one of her predecessors in Baltimore, led a bland, lightweight Mahler Fifth at the Bowl. He has just recorded it in Zurich. He still has a light touch, but on the riveting new CD, details sizzle.

Details were one problem Tuesday. Amplification was used conservatively and respectfully. Still, balances surely weren't all Alsop's. Technology has a mind of its own, and fine points were lost, while others quirkily highlighted. Alsop generally contained Mahler's excesses, but some dramatically sudden tempo changes required an orchestra better drilled.

Still, Alsop's unceasing fervor and intensity helped hold things together. And the Adagietto, which was languorous but not too languorous, got the benefit of one of the Bowl's conjuring tricks. On cue, the evening chill hit with the first plucked harp notes and the spacious string harmonies. Goose bumps are goose bumps.

In Baltimore, Alsop smartly introduced the Fifth with more compelling agitation -- John Adams' "Fearful Symmetry." At the Bowl she began with something more recent, the West Coast premiere of a percussion concerto by Avner Dorman. The 33-year-old Israeli composer who recently relocated to Los Angeles is fast rising. Zubin Mehta is a champion and programmed the concerto with the New York Philharmonic earlier this year.

The title is "Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!" It was written for the sassy Israeli percussion duo of Tomer Yariv and Adi Morag, who go under the name PercaDu. The need for an exclamation point in the 25-minute work's title may be a give-away. This is slight, though not altogether unintoxicating, music.

The thrills are the percussion, but then when are they not? Percussion music is, by its nature, multicultural. But Dorman borrows self-consciously from Middle Eastern and Indian music for his orchestral accompaniment as well. Unlike the many Silk Road-inspired composers on the scene today, he also has an old-fashioned kitschy side, and his spices, most assuredly his perfume (the slow movement, which I though sounded kind of Spanish-y) and even his sweaty toxins are sweetly kissed by Korngold and Rozsa and other Hollywood greats of yore. If Dorman came to L.A. for the obvious work, he should not be disappointed.

The PercaDu pair has flair. Their instruments were many and varied, but the two young men looked most at home grooving on the traps. Their encore upstaged the concerto. Intentionally flubbed Bach was followed by a run-around-the-marimba "Flight of the Bumblebee" trick fit for Cirque du Soleil.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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Marin Alsop conducts the L.A. Philharmonic

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood

When: 8 tonight; new program

Price: $1 to $96

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

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