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Music Review

A really special guest stars

Conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Xian Zhang proves a

May 11, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Briefly on Saturday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Pacific Symphony were twinned.

At around 8:20, Yefim Bronfman, a powerhouse pianist from Uzbekistan and one of the great Prokofiev players of our time, sat down to perform the composer's popular Third Piano Concerto in Walt Disney Concert Hall. At the same time in Costa Mesa, Alexander Toradze, a powerhouse pianist from the Georgian republic and one of the great Prokofiev players of our time, sat down to perform the same concerto in Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

There were other coincidences between the programs. Both orchestras featured up-and-coming young conductors. In Los Angeles, that was Xian Zhang, who came to attention as the firebrand associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic. In Orange County, it was the more genial Christian Knapp, a former assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who was a last-minute replacement for Thierry Fischer, a Swiss conductor who came down with a case of shingles.

Beyond that, both programs ended similarly with richly orchestrated supernatural ballet scores. (I heard the Pacific Symphony on Thursday and the L.A. Philharmonic on Saturday.) Knapp conducted Stravinsky's "Petrushka," about a lovelorn puppet. Zhang concluded with the suite from "The Miraculous Mandarin," about a lovelorn ghostly Mandarin, that Bartok began writing seven years after the premiere of Stravinsky's famous 1911 score.

What proved most interesting, however, was how unalike these concerts were in almost every way, despite the stylistic resemblance between Bronfman and Toradze -- native Russian speakers who grew up in the Soviet Union and are, at least stylistically, Russian musicians with monster techniques.

But the biggest news of the weekend was Zhang's sensational Disney debut. She is a tightly wound, extraordinarily hard-driving conductor.

Back to the Prokofiev for a minute. Watching these young conductors confront two bears at the keyboard in a Russian concerto that flows deep in the pianists' blood was revealing. On Thursday night, Toradze, who has the power to make his large instrument quiver and shake as if in an earthquake, thundered as usual. He also went into magnificent mystical reveries. He commandeered piano and orchestra. Knapp followed respectfully.

Bronfman is cooler but no less prodigious. He lords over the piano. He is rigorous, never willful. Zhang didn't watch her soloist nor wait for him. Incredibly goal-directed, she pulled ahead, sometimes at insanely fast tempos, and Bronfman spectacularly jumped through keyboard hoops to keep up. I missed some of Toradze's marvelous reveries, but Bronfman's sheer determination and hints of humor couldn't be topped.

Knapp, who will conduct Tchaikovsky at the Hollywood Bowl in August, inherited Fischer's program. He began with an effusively phrased reading of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." After delivering a long and engaging spoken introduction to "Petrushka," he emphasized bright color and boisterous theatricality, delighting in Stravinsky's gear changes.

But if Knapp, an American with a degree in philosophy, expertly drives a stick shift, Zhang is master of those newfangled automatic transmissions that shift faster than humanly possible. Her background is intense. She was spirited away to a conservatory in China at age 10. These L.A. Philharmonic performances were only three months after giving birth. Saturday night she didn't let up for a second.

Her fascinating program, which opened with Chen Yi's "Momentum," included three ways of looking at China. Chen begins her impassioned 1998 10-minute score with a piccolo imitating a Chinese flute playing a folk tune. She builds up into a ferocious holocaust of sound but somehow the sweetness of folk song survives in the strings.

For the second half, Zhang paired John Adams' "Chairman Dances," an offshoot of the opera "Nixon in China," with "The Miraculous Mandarin." Adams describes "Chairman Dances" as a foxtrot for Mao and his wife. Bartok's ballet concerns a prostitute's scary Chinese client.

Adams' score shimmered. Zhang treated it less like descriptive music and more like pure, scintillating Minimalism, which proved a revelation. She took Bartok at a tear. The orchestra played with a magnificent momentum, without ever stopping to take a breath.

Yes, Zhang could loosen up a bit, but I'm not sure an excited audience, fully in her resolute grip, would have wanted her to. It is probably not too soon for major orchestras to begin fighting over her.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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