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Review: Joshua Bell guests with Lionel Bringuier and Los Angeles Philharmonic

April 24, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Bell 

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s historic last two weeks of concerts as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic are an impossible act to follow.  Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Lionel Bringuier, age 22, followed it.

Unenviable as that assignment might seem, he was lucky. Bringuier, who is the orchestra’s assistant conductor, was the cover conductor for Salonen’s final two programs.  Had, for any reason, the music director not been able to go on, the assistant would have been forced to face a devastated crowd and premiere the daunting Salonen Violin Concerto or handle all the intricacies of a Peter Sellars-staged Stravinsky double bill.

In contrast, Bringuier’s own program Thursday was a piece of cake.  It certainly was full of sweets.   Violinist Joshua Bell was soloist in Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole,” and Bringuier went into the attic of early 20th century French music and lovingly dusted off Florent Schmitt’s “La Tragédie de Salomé.”  Bringuier also brought back from the dead Liszt’s orchestration of his popular piano piece, “Mephisto Waltz No. 1."

Bell’s presence guaranteed the young maestro a full house.  Still, the evening belonged to Bringuier.  At a very early age, he is already going places with guest-conducting invitations from the likes of the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Dresden.  He is not flashy or fussy or, as yet, a big personality.  Instead, he seems on the podium respectful yet commanding and strikingly competent.  Thus far, he goes in for bright, dazzlingly, sensual music, and on this occasion the orchestra played for him brilliantly. 

Bell’s brilliance was of a different brand.

The violinist’s technical polish is extraordinary.  His tone is string syrup, and he didn’t so much play Lalo’s 1874 French/Spanish symphony/concerto as glide over it. Yes, he danced and sweated and played the virtuoso card for all it was worth.  And he made his usual pretty sound.  But he sang spiritless long lines.  I enjoyed the moments when the orchestra didn’t pull punches and drowned him out.

Bell’s encore -- a solo arrangement of an 1844 Vieuxtemps’ novelty, “Souvenir d'Amérique," a series of "burlesque" variations on `Yankee Doodle' – was given a jokey fleetness but was a wonder technically.  After the concert, a long line of fans jostled for autographs of the violinist’s bland recent recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

For his part, Bringuier brought a much more convincing sense of Spanish panache and French élan to Ravel’s short “Alborada del Gracioso,” which opened the program.  The real interest, though, was in the Schmitt novelty.

Like Walter Braunfels' “The Birds” (now at Los Angeles Opera), “La Tragédie de Salomé” is an early 20th century score that was all the rage in its day but has totally gone out of fashion.  The 1910 ballet score, which sounds a bit like Rimsky-Korsakov filtered through early Debussy, was dedicated to Stravinsky.  Ida Rubinstein danced it at the Paris Opéra in 1919.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic first played it as early as 1932.

These days few have heard of it. In Schmitt’s version, a lustful Herod strips Salome’s veils after her licentious “Dance of the Lightning.”  John the Baptist covers her up, and is beheaded for doing so.  The ballet ends in terror when the prophet’s severed head turns the Dead Sea red.

Compared to Stravinsky, Schmitt’s music wasn’t particularly terrifying.  But what this conservative French composer did do very well was create an atmosphere of enchantment.  He set an exotic scene of Herod’s pleasure palace.  A desert sea breeze can almost be felt blowing through the opening Prelude.  Harp glissandos convey flesh all a tingle.  An English horn plays an alluring solo.  Debauchery is in the air.

Bringuier captured all this delightfully -- and tastefully.  Salome’s dances ultimately disappoint, never quite living up to the buildup.  But there is enough of interest to make these 25 minutes of music worth an occasional (very occasional) outing.

Afterward, “Mephisto Waltz” was anticlimactic.  Somewhere in his translation to orchestra, Liszt lost the demonic power of his piano original.  Still, a careful performance lifted the score from its usual pops-programming status, even if that wasn’t enough to keep many in the audience from bolting the second it was over to get a good place in the line for a Bell autograph.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Friday (a Casual Fridays concert that omits the Schmitt);  2 p.m Saturday and Sunday. $42 to $147. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photo: Lionel Bringuier conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday with violinist Joshua Bell as soloist.  Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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