How much of a difference can a guest conductor make? Quite a lot, as we learned over the last few days at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Over the previous weekend, Yannick Nezet-Seguin had the Los Angeles Philharmonic eating out of his hand, exhibiting amazing control with not a wasted motion, however extravagant. Friday night, Pablo Heras-Casado took the podium -- and the soundscape changed, even allowing for the differences in repertoire. Both are in their early 30s, and both were making their first appearances before the entire orchestra (Heras-Casado had led the New Music Group here last December).
Granted, Heras-Casado was subbing for Yuri Temirkanov, who had canceled all of his appearances in the U.S. a month ago due to "personal reasons." Even so, perhaps because the curly-haired, baton-less, 31-year-old Spaniard was not used to Disney Hall's acoustics, the balances were often askew in the Mendelssohn "Italian" Symphony -- too much brass and timpani blotting out the undersized string contingent -- and he tended to rush more frantically than necessary. Also, the strings did not give Heras-Casado the same degree of unanimity that they displayed for another guest, James Conlon, in fast-tempo Mendelssohn last month.
There were other problems in Mahler's Symphony No. 4 -- peculiar micro-managed phrasings and odd balances that sounded unnatural, surprisingly little grace and air. The unique atmosphere of the Mahler Fourth didn't take hold until a passage for cellos in the middle of the third movement, at which point the performance finally settled into a rapt mood, with a superbly gauged sunburst episode before the movement's close.
After this point, Heras-Casado seemed to fade into the Douglas fir woodwork, for British soprano Kate Royal took over the hall. Usually the vocal soloist is seated quietly onstage before the start of the finale, but not this time. As Heras-Casado struck up the opening, lilting tune, Royal wandered in dramatically from the wings, looking lost. She acted every inch the diva -- projecting a presence that wouldn't quit, vividly characterizing every word with her dark-colored soprano and facial expressions, cutting loose with full volume near the end.
A spoilsport might say that this was not the kind of performance that Mahler had in mind -- a child's view of heaven stamped with wonder and, yes, innocence. But it was a striking performance nevertheless.