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Music review: Nikolaj Znaider conducts and solos with the L.A. Phil at Hollywood Bowl

July 9, 2010 | 10:52 am
Znaider

Instrumental soloists every now and then get the idea that they’d like to conduct. The results are often mixed; occasionally, disastrous. One soloist who seems to be making the right steps in straddling both roles is violinist Nikolaj Znaider, who has already conducted in St. Petersburg and Dresden and is principal guest conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.

Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl, Znaider made his conducting debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of works by Mozart, Brahms and Schumann. He didn’t forget his fiddle, however, a 1741 Guarnerius del Gesú. The Danish violinist (he turned 35 this week) also was the soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No. 2.

A tall, reserved and quiet presence on the podium, Znaider conducted Schumann’s Second Symphony and Brahms’ “Tragic” Overture from memory, imposing no wayward interpretations, inclining toward slow tempos but responding to the inherent dramas.

Schumann is a composer we can root for, and Znaider’s account of the Second Symphony proved the highlight of the evening. The composer wrote it after recovering from a nervous breakdown, although ill health and recurring insecurities continued to daunt him, delaying the work’s completion.

The last movement especially embodies a drive toward a necessary unity, the musical motives and fragments coalescing, dissolving and reuniting until the glorious affirmations in C major that end the work. Znaider made us feel the struggle and rejoice in the triumph.

For the orchestra’s part, the Philharmonic dispatched the second movement, a whirligig showpiece, with precision and zest, and plumbed the depths of the far deeper third movement adagio with affecting tenderness. It was in this movement that Znaider achieved his greatest stature as a conductor.

To close the first half of the program, the conductor turned to Brahms’ Overture, making the opening crisp and electric, and keeping the music taut throughout the dramatic, full-orchestra passages. He let the lyrical sections tend to fray, however, through his choice of slow tempos. Possibly the nuances evaporated in the great outdoors.

Oddly enough, the least successful piece was Mozart’s Concerto, which opened the program. To be sure, Znaider was a warm, personal and elegant soloist. But as conductor of the work, he let the orchestra languish as mere accompaniment, chugging rhythmically along, reflecting only prominent shifts in dynamic, ignoring possible nuances of phrasing. Perhaps in time he will be able to better transfer his solo insights into ensemble virtues.

-- Chris Pasles 

Photo: Nikolaj Znaider plays violin and conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

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