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Music review: Semyon Bychkov conducts Mahler's Fifth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

April 2, 2010 |  1:41 pm
Semyon Last week, Valery Gergiev led his touring Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. On Thursday night, 40 miles away at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Semyon Bychkov led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Another week, another Russian, another hyper-expressive Mahler Fifth.

The coincidences are many. On both occasions, the symphony -- 75 minutes in Gergiev’s fluttering hands, 70 in Bychkov’s wildly waving arms -- was the only work on the program. The two conductors happen to be close contemporaries: Bychkov was born in 1952 in St. Petersburg; Gergiev, an Ossetian who has become St. Petersburg’s current cultural icon, is five months younger. Both studied conducting with Ilya Mushin, a famed Russian pedagogue. Both got important career boosts from Herbert von Karajan. Both came to Mahler backward, through Shostakovich.

But there the similarities seem to end. A political animal, Gergiev has used whomever is in power to empower his art. The more outspoken Bychkov made a necessary early exit from the Soviet Union in 1974, building a career with orchestras in Buffalo, New York; Paris; and Cologne, Germany.

Gergiev is seen today as the most Russian of conductors. Bychkov conveys a more international outlook. He is married to the French pianist Marielle Labeque. He has been a fine champion of contemporary music.

Later this month in Cologne, for instance, Bychkov will premiere a new cello concerto by the profoundly meditative Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, who lives part of the year in Glendale. When Bychkov conducts the Mahler Fifth with the Chicago Symphony in May, he will precede it with Detlev Glanert’s “Theatricum Bestiarum.”

A bare Mahler symphony at the L.A. Philharmonic, where there has been little new in the four months that Gustavo Dudamel has been away, was uncharacteristic. But given the orchestra’s committed playing Thursday, Bychkov’s modern approach to the symphony and what looked like close to a 100% standing ovation, it is unlikely management will get angry letters about too little music.

There are many ways to approach Mahler, whose idea of the symphony was as a messy and novelistic window into the world. In the first four of his nine completed symphonies, the composer implied high-minded, angst-ridden narrative programs. But there is so much complexity and ambiguity in these bottomless works that no road map is possible, and with the Fifth Mahler stopped trying to explain himself quite so fully.

The symphony begins with death and ends with life, and for a full century (the premiere was in 1904) conductors have scrutinized what that means. Gergiev measured the work from the opening funeral march, and although he rarely lightened up, he leavened tragedy with a wondrous mystical radiance. Bychkov’s approach was more that of a life lived backward, cinematically and Benjamin Button-like.

Thursday’s performance had the great advantage of beauty playing from the orchestra. James Wilt’s solo opening trumpet funeral fanfare set a golden tone for the evening, which was more about the glow of life than its loss. Bychkov certainly has his manic Russian side, and the first two movements, which constitute the first section of the symphony’s tri-part structure, felt like a headlong rush into bipolar madness, as if Mahler were tearing out his hair one minute, in dreamy reverie the next.

For the central Scherzo, Bychkov followed a suggestion Mahler once made (but rarely followed) of asking the first horn to move up to the front of the orchestra, even though what William Lane played Thursday were not so much solos but background obbligatos. The horn here became an eloquent observer of a frisky, if chaotic, romp through unpredictable life lived for the moment and at its height.

BychkovThroughout the symphony, Bychkov continually elevated the mood. That Mahler apparently meant the Adagio for strings and harp as a love letter has not stopped the conductors from finding more somber sentiment and none more so than Gergiev’s deeply affecting reading last week. Bychkov’s tempo was far quicker and he asked for string textures to be more airy, for a harp that tugged less at heartstrings. And that allowed him to make the Finale a frolic, a hero about to take on the world.

The orchestra, from top to bottom, played fabulously for Bychkov. Of course, any orchestra that sounds that good in Mahler’s Fifth might well have apportioned rehearsal time to prepare a little something new for the program as well. Maybe next time. I can’t imagine that Bychkov won’t be back.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday. $22.50 to $170. (323) 850-2000 or


Music review: Valery Gergiev conducts Mahler with the Mariinsky

Photos: Semyon Bychkov conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times