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Review: Vasily Petrenko makes Shostakovich new with the L.A. Phil

Simon Trpceski splendidly performs Grieg¿s Piano Concerto

November 24, 2012|By Mark Swed | Music Critic
  • Vasily Petrenko conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Vasily Petrenko conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

Vasily Petrenko is a slender, stylish Russian conductor dashing enough for Hollywood – he could have easily have pranced on camera in “Anna Karenina.” As an unknown 30-year-old in 2006, he took over the struggling Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, not a glamorous post. Now he is a local hero who has made Merseyside into Shostakovich central.

Unfortunately, Petrenko has become associated with a limited Russian repertory, something not about to stop, what with the deserved popularity of his growing Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich discographies. And guest conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night, he played to type with a sterling performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

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The evening’s piano concerto wasn’t Russian, however. Simon Trpceski, a frequent partner of Petrenko’s, was soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto. But even that played to type. Next year Petrenko will become music director of the Oslo Philharmonic, where he is sure to become sick to death of a concerto that is endlessly played as background music throughout Norway.

The Grieg or Shostakovich aren’t exactly novelties in L.A. either. The L.A. Phil played the concerto in Disney just eight months ago. The orchestra’s most recent Shostakovich Tenth was in September at the Hollywood Bowl.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the standard repertory Petrenko was  assigned at his previous Disney Hall appearance in 2010 and at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011, his programming can be more wide ranging.

For his concert at the Proms in London last summer with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, he gave the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Gait,” the most compelling score I have yet heard from the young American composer (whose less ambitious violin concerto, “Seeing Is Believing,” was on an L.A. Phil Green Umbrella concert last month) and a knockout performance of Messiaen’s “Turangalila” Symphony.

The L.A. Phil wasn’t all vanilla Friday. The opener -- Carl Nielsen’s short, upbeat overture to his comic opera, “Maskarade” -- reminded us of a Danish composer heard far too infrequently. In a sprightly, sparklingly detailed reading, Petrenko brought it to life.

But the vanilla was the revelation, as real vanilla can be when it contains only the purest ingredients. There might have a been a few in the crowd who had never heard Grieg’s evergreen concerto before, but that would have to have been very few. It’s not only Oslo where it finds its way into the Muzak mainstream.

No matter. On Friday night the concerto earned its popularity in a performance in which care and caring from both soloist and conductor dominated. The young Macedonian pianist was all grace and eloquence. He found the natural inner flow of the Grieg, its stream of melody. His tone has an understated beauty. He brought to Grieg his knack for a clarity that never seems artificial nor cold.

Trpceski is ultimately an environmental pianist who gives the impression that the piano can reflect the timbral qualities of a violin or clarinet or horn when he joins in with them. He and the conductor worked as one, and together they presented the old Grieg concerto as a resource ever replenished. No wonder they want Petrenko in Oslo.

The Shostakovich Tenth was equally consummate and full of character. One of Petrenko’s mentors in his native St. Petersburg was Yuri Temirkanov, and Petrenko picked up Temirkanov’s technique of highly expressive hand gestures that mimic musical shapes. Allied to that is a kind of Karajan-like polish and concentration that inspires technical perfection.

The big and serious Tenth is often treated as Shostakovich’s most probing symphony. Begun in 1946 and not finished until 1953, its gestation was slow for a composer whose often wrote too fast. That period, between the end of World War II and the death of his nemesis Stalin, was a haunted one for Shostakovich.

The temptation for young conductors is to overstate Shostakovich’s case, to make of the symphony an epic of Stalinist evil and Soviet angst. Petrenko’s Tenth, on the other hand, was a brilliant spectacle without an excessive of baggage. It thrived on exceptional playing throughout the orchestra. That included a smooth soulfulness from the winds, a meaty but not overly dark string tone, a sense of refinement from the brass and finely toned muscle from the percussion.

Petrenko has won over the Brits. Oslo is sure to be his oyster. But what he really stands for is an idealistic new Russia, not the Russia of ostentatious oligarchs and a repressive Kremlin we hear too much about. Petrenko made of Shostakovich’s Tenth a gleaming monument, restored as a symbol for a better world.

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What: Vasily Petrenko conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

Cost: $23.75 to $189.00

Info: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

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