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Review: L.A. Phil revivifies neglected Schuman symphony

February 2, 2009 | 10:50 am

Hilary HahnWhat was it about the number 3 (perhaps the connection to Beethoven’s “Eroica”?) that seems to have inspired certain mid-20th century American symphonists to reach for a little something extra?

Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony was grander and more portentous than his others. Roy Harris’ great Third still anchors his name on the periphery of the repertoire. Leonard Bernstein’s Third was his most audacious symphony and remains controversial.

And there was William Schuman’s Third -- a tremendously galvanizing score that has been all but bypassed by history. We rarely hear it in concert -- the last time the Los Angeles Philharmonic played it was in 1990 -- and only Bernstein in New York and Gerard Schwarz in Seattle have kept it alive on discs. No wonder that Leonard Slatkin reached for the microphone to proselytize for the work prior to leading the philharmonic in it Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The symphony consists of two large movements that begin slowly deep in the strings -- the first in the violas, the second in the cellos -- and gradually develop into blazing statements stamped with can-do American optimism. Perhaps the latter was one reason why the piece fell out of fashion in more cynical times; another may have been a backlash to Schuman’s position at the head of the musical Establishment (he was president of Juilliard and Lincoln Center).

But those wars are over, and Slatkin could sell the piece as fervently with his baton as with his words, generating great tension in the right places, reveling in the clarity of Disney Hall’s illumination of Schuman’s exploding fugues.

Just as he divided a Hollywood Bowl concert last summer between odd bedfellows Elgar and Philip Glass, Slatkin juxtaposed two Americans and two Russian Romantics in his sole program in Disney Hall this season. The other American was the philharmonic’s longtime resident new music advocate Steven Stucky, whose brief, deliciously percussion-colored “Son et Lumière” glistened and glittered as a prelude to Schuman.

Glazunov’s Violin Concerto -- still a staple in the CD catalogs but not performed much in concerts these days -- found violinist Hilary Hahn (above) playing with a small, pristine, perfectly proportioned tone, burning on a cool, objective interpretive flame at all times. This was hyper-Romantic music viewed at an ironic distance, though impeccably played.

Also, there was one chestnut usually relegated to the Bowl -- Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” -- led with plenty of straight-ahead controlled fire by Slatkin.

We are so used to the usual run-throughs of this piece outdoors that it’s easy to forget that this can be great music too.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Photo: Hilary Hahn. Credit: Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon

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