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Music review: Lorin Maazel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

January 16, 2010 |  5:33 pm

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Leave a house you’ve had for 17 years and the new occupants will no doubt make changes. Esa-Pekka Salonen no longer lives at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and its sound and sensibility are moving in new directions under new music director Gustavo Dudamel, sometimes startlingly so.

But nothing quite prepared me for Lorin Maazel’s chameleon-like Sibelius Second Symphony on Friday night, as he began a two-week guest conducting stint at Walt Disney Concert Hall. With eyes closed and by pretending the acoustics or the weather weren’t quite so good, I could have easily imagined myself in Avery Fisher Hall a year ago, hearing the New York Philharmonic while Maazel was still its music director.

How a conductor can, after only three days of rehearsal, magically create a new sound is one of the mysteries of the art form and managed by only a select few (Valery Gergiev is another such magician). The L.A. Philharmonic might still be expected to be a Sibelius orchestra in the Salonen mold, given that he led a cycle of Sibelius’ seven symphonies in 2007, toured with them and recorded the Second for a DG Concerts download on iTunes.

The Sibelian comparisons between Salonen and Maazel, who are both composers, are fascinating. The former is a Modernist Finn who came of age as a rebel against the overpowering influence of Sibelius on Finnish culture, yet he takes his Sibelius straight. Ironically, it's the neo-Romantic (if edgy) music of Maazel, who grew up in L.A. in the '30s, that sounds Sibelian. And Friday, Maazel might as well have composed Sibelius’ Second himself, so not straight was his startling and stunning performance.

First of all there was that New York sound – polished, machined, spectacularly virtuosic and spectacularly aggressive. Each section of the orchestra came across as brilliantly and competitively distinct. Maazel drove the Angelenos like a lane-weaving New York taxi driver. When he wasn’t bearing down on the accelerator, he was stomping on the brakes. He didn’t stop for pedestrians. 

Not that even New Yorkers necessarily want such conductors. A willful and fussy Maazel was the whipping boy of the local press during his seven seasons in New York. I didn’t notice tears being shed at Maazel’s final New York Philharmonic concerts in June, after seven years as music director, the way they were shed at Salonen’s farewell in April.

Even so, this was a performance far too impressive to be dismissed. I’m not sure I knew what Maazel was up to, molding the symphony as though it were clay in his hand and letting climaxes bloom where they normally don’t. But there was something very alive in his phrasing when it huffed and puffed like breaths taken. At the end of the over-heated performance, the Disney organ pipes were practically blasting steam.

Kwdam4nc The first half of the evening was devoted to excerpts of Richard Strauss operas – “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Salome” – which, like Sibelius' Second, came from the 20th century’s first decade. But I detected no large point to the programming. “Salome” was Strauss in 1905, a radical. “Rosenkavalier” was the composer five years later, already nostalgic for the Old World.

The “Rosenkavalier” Suite is of dubious provenance. Most likely it was arranged in 1945 by Artur Rodzinski, a former music director of the L.A. and New York philharmonics. But Maazel likes this orchestral tour of operatic highlights; he conducted it with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Orange County in 2003, and he began the program Friday with an extreme, epic performance that mixed vulgarity with a sentimentality that could annoyingly break down a listener’s defenses.

The “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome” offered another kind of seduction. I haven’t yet mentioned that Maazel is 79, because that might imply that he exhibits a diminished physical capacity. He doesn’t. He was imperious Friday, putting plenty of virility into this masterpiece of decadence, which he interpreted from what would have been a predominantly masculine point of view had not there been fetching flute and oboe solos from Catherine Ransom Karoly and Ariana Ghez.

It took a while for Salome herself to appear. After the "Dance," an unseen speaker (Don Luce) provided a needless dramatic reading of a précis of the opera by poet J.D. McClatchy. Soprano Nancy Gustafson then walked on for the opera’s final scene.

Thanks to the substantial amplification that preceded her, Gustafson was at an acoustic disadvantage. A mere mortal, she sounded underpowered at first, especially with a powerful orchestra behind her. She did eventually rise to Strauss’ considerable musical challenge, but appearances were deceiving. Although dressed in a revealing sheer black gown, she was nonetheless more an earnest neurotic than racy teenager who develops a fatal erotic attraction to the severed head of John the Baptist. She and the orchestra, however, made a lot of emotionally charged yet disciplined noise, and that was impressive.

Next up will be Maazel conducting Bruckner's most impressive symphony, the Eighth.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Maazel conducts Strauss and Sibelius: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Maazel conducts Bruckner's Symphony No. 8: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. Jan. 24. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

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Lorin Maazel nears 80 at 100 mph

Photo: (top) Lorin Maazel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Friday night; (below) soprano Nancy Gustafson sings the final scene from "Salome." Credit: Stefano Paltera/Los Angeles Times

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