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Music review: Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall

November 5, 2010 |  4:39 pm

Serkin 
On another blindingly bright morning Friday, the Walt Disney Concert Hall steel shimmered like an oasis in the hot, unshielded desert. The inside, though, was cooled by “riverrun.”

Toru Takemitsu’s 15-minute score for piano and orchestra – the title is the first word of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” -- was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for pianist Peter Serkin and given its first performance January 1985, in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Simon Rattle, nine days before his 30th birthday, conducted. It took then only a few bars of softly swelling and burbling winds, rustling strings and the piano’s refreshing invocation of a dip in the lake, to know that natural forces were at work, that “riverrun” was one of the Japanese composer’s masterpieces of water music.

This small, perfect concerto has returned to L.A. Phil programs twice –- Serkin was soloist with Oliver Knussen in 1997 and Paul Crossley with Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2002. On Friday, Serkin was back for the first “riverrun” in Disney, this time with Pablo Heras-Casado as conductor. From the rear the ardent mop-topped 32-year-old Spaniard might easily have been mistaken for the young Rattle. With eyes closed the resemblance was still there.

Takemitsu, in his program note, spoke of his music here as moving toward a sea of tonality. But the ebb and flow is its essence. The brisk dissonances at the beginning are not upsetting and the calm consonances at the end do not suggest arrival, only maybe the water has gotten a little more transparent.

Debussy was a model, and Messiaen influenced Takemitsu’s harmonic palate. But the composer, who died in 1996, shaped everything through an Asian sensibility of being in the moment. Serkin played with exactly the right composed tranquility. He was tense but also inside every note. I heard the sound of bells reflected on a pond, the glitter of gongs and the mysterious surety of a Zen master pondering uncertainty.

Heras-Casado is more excitable. He honored Takemitsu’s orchestral ripple-effect but also liked to make a nice big splash now and then. That was also true of much else on the program, which began with Debussy’s ballet score, “Jeux,” and included Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds (again with Serkin) and the “Firebird” Suite.

“Jeux” –- a ballet that had no scenario other than a game of tennis -- is Debussy’s most ambiguous and progressive score and heard much less often than his other major orchestral works. Melodic motives grow and diminish, break apart and bounce off each other in no discernable order. This, too, is a kind of nature music, and Heras-Casado took it slowly and smoothly, tying together what could be tied together, creating a flow whether Debussy asked for one or not. But the colors were vividly and the seductive instrumental shimmer that needed to be there was there.

Stravinsky’s concerto belonged to Serkin, who played with a tremendous rhythmic conviction, crisp yet maintaining that marvelous full tone. And “Firebird” was Heras-Casado’s moment for show. This was not quite the Stravinsky of Stravinsky, who honored articulation above all else. Heras-Casado was more impulsive. For him the princesses’ “Round Dance” became a lithe display of diaphanous winds, Kastchei’s “Infernal Dance” a fright, the Berceuse a moment of sweet repose and the Finale practically a break dance.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $44-$167; (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.com/.

Photo: Pianist Peter Serkin (left) and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado taking a bow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday morning. Credit: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times.

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