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Music Review

A genial guest's Philharmonic balancing act

Herbert Blomstedt conducts a lively engagement with works by Handel,

March 30, 2009|Chris Pasles

Baroque music without theories: What blessed relief. That's what guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt and the Los Angeles Philharmonic served up Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

In the bad old days, music was music, period, no matter when it was written and what the details of its original performance might have been. Then the specialists moved in, illuminating the field, to be sure, but also dividing it into do's and don'ts, which soon became thou-shalt's and thou-shalt-not's.

Blomstedt and crew said the heck with that. Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" is simply grand and glorious, so let's play it with sumptuous sound on modern instruments, without tripping over issues of gut versus steel strings or clipped versus legato phrasing, or whether to use vibrato, or how many musicians should be involved.

The trick, of course, is still to maintain transparency, balance, proportion and, especially, a lively engagement with the inner life of the music. All this, Blomstedt, who is a genial, undemonstrative but resourceful presence on the podium, had in full measure.

In the peppy, more martial movements, the playing was regal without being pompous. In the paean to peace in the third section, the performance was airy and gracious. Throughout, the lines emerged clearly and cleanly layered, with Handel's changes in instrumentation carefully and delightfully revealed. Blomstedt showed a masterly sense of dynamic proportion appropriate to the hall.

But even better was his use of the Disney acoustic for Haydn's Cello Concerto in C, with the remarkable Johannes Moser as the soloist. Here, with the orchestra reduced to about 20 players, the danger lay in pianissimo preciousness. Instead, there emerged jewel-like, collaborative playing that was exquisitely balanced and detailed.

Moser deserves special credit for keeping his formidable technique in the service of the music and the conception of the performance. He never grandstanded against his colleagues, although he did take rightful pride of place, interacting and challenging them, his fingers flying, his body lurching forward with a witty accent or two. For their part, the musicians never flinched, faltered or overstepped their bounds.

At times like this, it was clear that such music survives for reasons beyond its attractive tunefulness and solid construction. It reveals and engages us in not only a musical but a social and philosophical ideal.

After intermission, Blomstedt led the orchestra in Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony. All the previous virtues emerged intact, although on a larger scale. Climaxes were forceful but not catastrophic. Quiet passages were intimate without vanishing. In the fast second movement, the winds were splendid; the strings, elfin and precise. The brass made a rich, luxurious sound.

Blomstedt is no slouch in this or any other later repertory, but he merits particular gratitude for giving us the opportunity to savor Handel again with the qualities the Los Angeles Philharmonic can bring to the music.

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