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Music review: Bramwell Tovey, Andre Watts with the L.A. Phil at Disney Hall

January 8, 2010 |  2:55 pm
Tovey

Guest conductor Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic welcomed their Walt Disney Concert Hall audience back from the holidays Thursday with in-your-face renditions of two massive works: the rarely played “London” Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto.

The symphony, a first for this hall -- it was last performed by the Philharmonic under Roger Norrington at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1996 -- proved less sweet and nostalgic, more bracing and noisily urban than typical accounts. Once Tovey and company quietly evoked London’s gray dawn, and harp and clarinet intoned the Westminster Chimes, all hell broke loose. It’s a reasonable assumption that Tovey, who is familiar with Disney’s lively acoustics, intended the hall-shaking climaxes to remind listeners that this backward-looking, plangent symphony is still relevant to our less than innocent and sentimental times.

Not that Tovey slighted passages of repose and poetry. In the idyllic slow movement, meant, according to the composer, to evoke “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon,” Tovey showcased Carrie Dennis’ impassioned viola playing and the brilliant Philharmonic brass section, including William Lane’s haunting solo horn, Donald Green’s trumpet and Larry Zalkind’s trombone.

Tovey also stressed the wail of despair in the Finale, tempering it with a dignified march, or a “march of the unemployed,” as music critic Olin Downes once referred to this passage. The “London” ends quietly, which may explain why the Disney Hall audience withheld a standing ovation. Maybe too, there was a sobering sense that Tovey’s reading of this gorgeous 90-year-old piece still had something to say about all great cities, especially now.

After intermission, André Watts hurtled through the Brahms Concerto. The 63-year-old pianist has been performing the devilishly difficult work for more than 40 years. Once, on a tour in Israel, he played it a dozen times in 15 days.

Although Watts’ fleet-fingered octaves and arpeggios were all still riveting, his performance was too driven. With Tovey and the Philharmonic speeding along with him, it began to feel like a nervous rush to the finish line. Watts’ abandon conveyed visceral excitement but was undermined by a nondescript, sometimes clattery tone. He was at his best in the subdued chamber-like Andante, playing off the more long-breathed grandeur of Peter Stumpf’s cello and Marion Kuszyk’s oboe. That’s good news for his many fans, who gave Watts a long standing ovation. He is scheduled to perform Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat Tuesday with members of the Philharmonic.

-- Rick Schultz

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Tovey and Watts: 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. Also: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Granada, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara, www.camasb.org

André Watts chamber music program: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 8 p.m. Tuesday, (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photo: André Watts on the piano as Bramwell Tovey conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times.

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