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Music review: Riccardo Chailly and the world's oldest orchestra at Disney Hall

February 18, 2010 |  5:12 pm
Chailly

The sunny Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly has a knack for landing where you’d least expect him and making a go of it. He is music director of what used to seem the eternally starchy Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. They began a U.S. tour with a Beethoven date in the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday night. This German orchestra, the world’s oldest, is starchy no more.

Just how old is the Leipzig ensemble, which takes its name from its concert hall, the Gewandhaus? Mendelssohn became its music director in 1835 and was on hand to celebrate the band’s 100th anniversary in 1843. Another way to look at it is to note that in 1835, Leipzig’s orchestra was one year older than the Los Angeles Philharmonic is today.

Chailly, who turns 57 Saturday, has an interesting background. From a distinguished Italian musical family, he spent part of a rebellious Beatles-besotted boyhood in Milan as a rock drummer. A quarter century ago, he made his L.A. Philharmonic debut hailed as the next hot young conductor. He was not invited back.

In 1988, at 35 and best known for conducting opera and championing contemporary music, he was appointed music director of Amsterdam’s fabled Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, where the public happened to be antagonistic to Latin flash and anything very modern. Over the next 16 years, however, he made the Concertgebouw a far more relevant institution to the vibrant Amsterdam cultural scene.

After Amsterdam, America seemed an obvious next step for Chailly, and he was briefly courted by New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. But he wound up instead in the town where Bach had lived and at the epicenter of German musical culture. His immediate predecessors were the traditionalists Kurt Masur and Herbert Blomstedt.

On the surface, the Leipzig Chailly is something of a classicist himself. He has made highly regarded recordings of Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn with the Gewandhaus, and he has now turned to Bach. A rippingly good recording of the Brandenburg Concertos has just been released, and the St. Matthew Passion is up next.  

His tour programs are about as conventional as can be imagined. At Disney, Chailly offered Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Emperor,” which the Gewandhaus premiered in Leipzig in 1809, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Friday at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, he will turn to Mendelssohn and Dvorák.

But I am happy to report that Wednesday there was still a hint of the old Ringo in the Old World Chailly. A stately German orchestra the Gewandhaus may be, but young musicians appear to outnumber old ones and there are now many women. A burnished, blended sound could be credited to the orchestra’s DNA, but so could a Mendelssohnian sparkle. And orchestral DNA is metaphor, anyway, not science. The sound can be changed. No one would mistake this for a bright-toned American orchestra, but Chailly goes for punch, and he gets it.

LortieThe soloist was to have been the idiosyncratic Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, with whom Chailly and the Gewandhaus have made splendid recordings of the Brahms concertos. Indisposed, he was replaced by Louis Lortie, a Canadian with a dazzlingly technique and a flair for Liszt. Lortie is a slight man whose large hands appeared to grow as he played.
 
The “Emperor” was big and bright. Chailly knocked out accents as though he were merrily shooting ducks at a carnival booth, and he made sure momentum never lagged. But he also made space for Lortie’s pianistic sparks to fly. This was pianism in the percussive, grandly virtuosic tradition. Everything was clear, vivid, brilliant.

Lortie returned for an encore -- the last movement of Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” piano sonata, which shares the cloudless key of E-flat with the “Emperor” -- and fingers flew.

The Beethoven Seventh is ever in vogue for its rhythmic verve, and Chailly’s performance was drum-driven. He beat out the Beethovenian tattoos of the outer movements enthusiastically. He made the timpanist the star. The playing was the not tidiest in all orchestra-land, but the sound was robust, instrumental colors were nuanced and the gusto was great.

For an encore, Chailly told the audience you can never play too much Beethoven and offered a delightfully impish reading of the “Prometheus” Overture, in which he sneaked in a Rossini crescendo. It’s a good thing the musical Stassi no longer prowl the concert halls in Leipzig.

-- Mark Swed

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra,  Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Friday; $40-$250. (949) 553-2422 or www.philharmonicsociety.org

Photo: (top) Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall Wedneday night; (below) pianist Louis Lortie. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times.
 

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