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Review: Entremont leads a vigorous Munich Symphony at UCLA

February 23, 2009 | 11:00 am

Entremontbig For the Munich Symphony Orchestra’s first U.S. tour in 2005, Los Angeles was not on the itinerary -- a surprise, considering that the ensemble has recorded the scores for numerous films, including “Hellbound: Hellraiser II” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

On Saturday, pianist-conductor Philippe Entremont made up for that omission at Royce Hall with a vigorous UCLA Live program of Wagner, Beethoven, Webern and Mendelssohn.

In the concert opener, Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” Entremont’s shapely phrasing built naturally to impassioned climaxes, conjuring an otherworldly landscape. All the score’s emotional detail -- the piece, a gift to the composer’s wife, also celebrated the birth of his son, Siegfried -- emerged fully realized.

The Munich players proved first-rate Wagnerians. Their string tone was luminous and full, with the textured lower range of violas and cellos especially rapturous. It was almost enough to make a listener forget about the Los Angeles Opera premiere of “Das Rheingold,” going on downtown at the same time.

Next, Entremont -- who will turn 75 in June and who made his U.S. debut as a pianist in 1953 -- conducted Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from the keyboard. It was a virile performance, with the energetic outer movements in marked contrast to the central hymn-like Largo, which received a delicate, hushed reading.

Even with such a responsive orchestra, Entremont’s largely undiminished piano technique carried the piece. His passage work was crisply articulated, and he took obvious joy in rendering Beethoven’s witty cadenzas, which play with an audience’s expectations. Entremont mischievously generated quiet suspense in the Allegro finale until the orchestra, tired of the delaying tactics, rushed to an exciting conclusion.

Entremont’s podium or, more accurately, piano bench manner was unobtrusive in the concerto. And in this case, there was certainly precedent for his conducting from the keyboard. Beethoven himself sometimes took on those dual roles. Still, it can be a bit disconcerting to look at the back of a pianist’s head for more than half an hour.

After intermission, the conductor returned with Webern’s “Fünf Sätze” (Five Movements), which the composer transformed from an earlier string quartet version into one for string orchestra.
Never underestimate a well-rehearsed touring orchestra, because Entremont and the Munich Symphony miraculously conveyed Webern’s precise demands with imagination and warmth, fully justifying Schoenberg’s opinion of these aphoristic expressions of grief as “a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath.” In the second movement, for example, a world of sadness unfolded in miniature. No wonder Samuel Beckett was a Webern fan.

Entremont returned to more extroverted ground with Mendelssohn’s evergreen “Italian” Symphony, a nod to the composer’s bicentennial year. After the spirited opening Allegro, he took a healthy-minded approach to the sometimes too solemn middle movements, concluding with a Presto of unfettered delight.

The encore was more Mendelssohn: the Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” performed with dreamy agility.

-- Rick Schultz

Photo: Philippe Entremont. Credit: Alvaro Yanez

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