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.