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The L.A. Philharmonic's leadership models

New CDs and DVDs chart the orchestra through the eras of Zubin Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini, André Previn and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

October 10, 2010|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Ninety-one years old and an orchestra that prides itself as progressive, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has, this weekend, begun its second season under Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra's 11th music director. You may recall that last season we took a few knocks. Critics around the country still seem to consider Southern California as the orchestral Wild West — thrill-seeking but not yet quite civilized. In these here Hollywood-addled provinces, to paraphrase the Philadelphia Inquirer, curly locks can be mistaken for culture.

But the last four (straight- or wavy-haired) music directors of the last half century — Zubin Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini, André Previn and Esa-Pekka Salonen — are the ones who molded the modern L.A. Philharmonic. And they are not without a certain renown — or continuing interest — on the international music scene. In fact, these maestros happen to be featured on a rash of new CD and DVD releases, as well as in documentaries and books. While Giulini died five years ago and Previn has not returned for two decades, Mehta and Salonen still maintain houses in Brentwood and a close relationship with their old band (Salonen is conductor laureate and Mehta a regular guest in Walt Disney Concert Hall).

Zubin Mehta

Mehta appears with the Vienna Philharmonic in two prestigious new CD collections. One is a three-disc compilation of live performances of Haydn symphonies taken from radio broadcasts that the orchestra has released itself. The other is a massive 25-CD collection on Deutsche Grammophon of live recordings from the Salzburg Festival. Coincidentally, all the Mehta/Vienna performances are from 1972, when Mehta was at the height of his L.A. tenure (1962-78).

In such classically restrained works as Haydn's Symphony No. 22 ("The Philosopher) and Schubert's Third Symphony, Mehta drove the Viennese rather hard. But the Schubert symphony was followed in Salzburg by a terrific performance of Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben," marked by seductive excesses of sugar, cream and energy.

Much of Mehta's time in recent years has been spent in the opera house, and he is the conductor of the latest and visually most spectacular "Ring" cycle yet to come out on video (Unitel Classics). Filmed in the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia — the striking new opera house in Valencia, Spain, designed by Santiago Calatrava — this is the fabled, futuristic production from last year by the Spanish team La Fura dels Baus, with radical sets, acrobatic feats of daring and philosophical conundrums about man and machine. The singing is generally likeable, and Mehta makes complex stage business and complex music feel purposefully integrated. The Blu-ray version is a knockout.

But Mehta also pulls it off on low-def, which is the only way we can thus far see the "Mantua Rigoletto." This multimedia event for Italian TV last month — a live performance of Verdi's opera in various locations in the Italian city, starring Plácido Domingo singing the baritone title role for the first time and Mehta conducting — was televised live throughout Europe. It is promised for PBS one of these days and also DVD release. Until then, try YouTube.

Carlo Maria Giulini

After 14 seasons in L.A., Mehta walked into the office of Ernest Fleischmann, then general manager of the orchestra, and gave him the astounding news that he had accepted an offer from the New York Philharmonic. That scene is recounted by Fleischmann, who died in June, in Thomas D. Saler's "Serving Genius," a new biography of Carlo Maria Giulini. What followed was perhaps the greatest example of orchestral salesmanship in modern history, and Saler offers a fascinating full account of the saintly 65-year-old Italian conductor's unlikely path to his house in the Hollywood Hills.

His was a short (1978-84) but happy tenure and one that changed the character of the orchestra. Fortunately, Giulini's Old World luster was captured on a series of L.A. recordings that Deutsche Grammophon has collected for the first time in a six-CD box, "Giulini in America."

The Giulini sound — rich, full, dark, intense (think espresso, chianti, Signora Giulini's to-die-for tomato sauce) — is unique. At his first rehearsal for the Beethoven Ninth, Saler reports, Giulini asked the players to "start from the silence of the hall," and that quality of music coming from a deep, mystical place can be felt here in symphonies by Beethoven (Nos. 3, 5 and 6), Brahms (Nos. 1 and 2), Schumann (No. 3) and Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" (No. 6), along with a scattering of Debussy and Ravel.

André Previn

What went wrong with André Previn, who succeeded Giulini, is still not entirely clear. His short music directorship (1985-89) ended abruptly when he resigned, hounded from his post, he claimed, by Fleischmann's machinations.

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