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Sex and The Piano Concerto

Waist Not, Want Not

I may have the measurements slightly off here, but it seems to me that Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and the Hollywood Bowl are artworks of about the same size, and were actually made for one another. Both are eminently satisfying, with few demands on the thinking apparatus, to large groups of people (more than 6,000 last Thursday night). Both actually take on an enhanced luster when their proponents display small and forgivable human flaws. When Olga Kern joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic to dish out the work at the Bowl last week, she hit a couple of clinkers as early as in the famous introductory passage, and somehow I felt myself in the presence of a friend. My first-ever recording of the Concerto was by Artur Rubinstein (back when he spelled his first name without the “h”) on Victor M-180, and at the start of the last movement Rubinstein hits a great, gleaming clinker that will, forever, be embedded in my view of the work. (The recording is still available, on an RCA reissue; John Barbirolli conducts.) Any performance that fails to include that particular fistful of wrong notes is, for me, foredoomed. To that extent (but to no others) Ms. Kern’s performance was a letdown.

In truth, Ms. Kern — recent winner of the famous (did someone whisper “notorious”?) Van Cliburn Piano Competition down Texas way — played the bejesus out of Tchaikovsky’s lame-brained concoction, and the Philharmonic, under its bright young assistant conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, followed her along every misguided note of Tchaikovsky’s vulgar trajectory. Actually, the splendiferously endowed young Russian-born pianist, string bean–svelte and blond as if to challenge the sheen of Fort Knox’s gold, provided two performances of the concerto at once: one to manage the rise and fall of the music’s virtuosic ambitions, and another to justify the presence of the Bowl’s video screens, as few performances I have seen up in that Cahuenga Pass venue ever have. It would not surprise me to learn that she had carefully studied her repertory of facial expressions from the back pages of the publication you now hold; lucky for the riot police she didn’t include the phone numbers as well.

Filling out the program, and returning it to the realm of serious musical consideration, young (36) Mickelthwate took on the Berlioz Fantastique Symphony under handicaps not of his making. First was the venue. If ever a single work has demonstrated the acoustic marvels of the Disney Concert Hall it has been this, which Esa-Pekka Salonen has conducted in both seasons so far. Second, of course, was Salonen’s performance itself, a probing by a modern-day orchestral master of the extraordinary sound panorama in this one-of-a-kind creation from the past.

Up against these memories, and with some interesting new competition at the Bowl from squabbling coyotes up on the hill and gabbling newly hatched wildfowl somewhere high up in the stage mechanism, Mickelthwate’s performance, if not truly “fantastic,” was a good deal more than merely creditable. He makes friends with the audience in a manner pleasant and unstrained; as befits his German upbringing, once he reaches the podium he is all business. He has a strong, clear beat, and a stage presence agreeably free from choreography. I could have wished that he had taken the repeats in the first and last two movements; they actually give the work shape and logic, as the Salonen performances have proved. The second-movement Waltz did not quite dance, but the enchantment of the third-movement Pastoral was beautifully captured. Keep your eye on Mickelthwate; he has the goods. Next season he conducts in a couple of “Green Umbrella” concerts and a Christmas program, but he needs to be thrown a symphony or two.

Serendipity

The Bruman Concerts at UCLA, which I had only discovered two weeks ago, came to an end for this summer with the fine young Calder Quartet nearly filling the hall. Christopher Rouse’s Second Quartet was the tough new work: strong, shapely and quite eloquent. Rouse began his career with music in an aggressive, pin-’em-to-the-seat style that didn’t have much to tell me beyond sheer impact. This quartet is something different; I found its ending, a long, quiet chorale, exceptionally beautiful. The work dates from 1988; Rouse later transcribed it for string orchestra (Concerto per Corde) and it has been recorded in that form, but the chamber version also deserves circulation. Smetana’s E-minor Quartet (“From My Life”) ended the program: wonderful, robust music that used to be performed more often than it is today. The Calder guys have moved up quickly — with residencies currently at both the Colburn and Juilliard schools — and I suspect that they haven’t yet learned to relax into the fun of this kind of middle-European repertory. Neither the dancing nor, at the end, the dark tragedy of this bucolic masterpiece came completely alive on the stage at Korn Hall; the marvelous scenery and colors beyond the notes remained unexplored.

Downtown at California Plaza (next to MOCA) there are “Grand Performances” so-called, a variorum of free musical entertainments set up in that charming watery environment of fountains and lagoons just in from Grand Avenue. On Saturday night there was the Mládí Chamber Orchestra, this time in full force. Through the wretched microphoning and overwrought amplification, and in a locale directly under a much-used commercial flight route, an outlay of imagination could still discern that this gathering of local freelancers, which functions without a conductor and gives concerts in several locales during the season, is an elegant and well-trained — and, therefore, valuable — small orchestra. Saturday’s concert began with an early Haydn symphony — No. 7, “Le Midi” — and moved on to the pallid charms of Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations, with cellist Timothy Loo excellently maintaining the music’s modest semblance of momentum. Following intermission came the gut-wrenching Chamber Symphony of Shostakovich, music written in horror at the composer’s first view of war-bombed Dresden. When I tell you that the ending of this wonderful work was allowed to segue directly into recorded pop music to send the crowd home happy, you may ask whether the management of this music series is worthy of trust to produce classical music on Grand or any other avenue in town. So do I.


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