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Music review: David Afkham takes over Los Angeles Philharmonic program at Disney Hall

May 1, 2011 |  4:15 pm

Four Los Angeles Philharmonic assistant conductors, known as Dudamel fellows but hardly Dude clones, take turns covering for scheduled conductors as well as lead outreach concerts, children’s programs and the like. Last week David Afkham was on call at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

That meant the slender, elegant German maestro, who was born in 1983 and is also an assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, had been assigned to lead a performance of Stravinsky’s complete “The Soldier’s Tale” with the L.A. Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Society on Tuesday night and a youth concert revolving around Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony Saturday morning, plus be available in case anything happened to the scheduled guest conductor, Jaap van Zweden.

Something happened. Illness forced Van Zweden to withdraw and his weekend concerts were turned over to Afkham, who made an exciting L.A. Philharmonic subscription debut with them.

The program, which ended with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, included Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, a grandly scaled late cello concerto featuring the orchestra’s principal cellist, Peter Stumpf, as soloist. The curiosity was to have been a grimly haunting score by Rudolf Escher, a cousin of the Dutch surrealist artist, M.C. Escher, written during World War II.

The curiosity, instead, became Afkham, himself, who replaced Escher’s “Music for the Spirit in Mourning” with no curiosity at all: Beethoven’s heroic “Coriolan” Overture. Maybe it was too much to ask a young conductor to begin this important debut with a 20-minute downer.

Afkham’s strong suit is rhythm, which served him well in Stravinsky on Tuesday and in Beethoven on Saturday. In fact, Afkham’s Beethoven -- which was lean, clean, sleek, tart, sharply accented and danceable -- seems exactly the kind of Beethoven that would have met with Stravinsky’s approval and that Balanchine would have found inherently suited to his choreography.

The Beethoven scores, which Afkham conducted from memory,  were proper bookends. They were written in 1807 and share the key of C minor and a heroic character. Afkham used a full-sized modern orchestra, but he did not go in for a big symphonic sound. The famous four-note opening motif of the Fifth was not Beethovenian fate knocking at the door this time but rather a gust of wind blowing the door open.

The whole symphony felt as though it were a voyage aloft in that gust. And wind becomes a versatile metaphor for this fresh Fifth, in which familiar Beethoven emotional centers felt illusory. Although his training is with piano and violin, Afkham has a special way with wind instruments, which he emphasized unusually to reveal structural flow.

The triumphant Finale did not feel like the resolution of conflict or the overcoming of obstacles but rather the inevitable outcome of natural processes. Principal timpanist Joseph Pereira was Afkham's ally in propulsion, and both men got huge ovations.

Stumpf Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante was on the quick and nimble side as well. Stumpf, who is in his ninth season with the orchestra and who is also an inspired chamber music player, brought his characteristic taste and sophisticated grace to the solo cello part. And an unfailingly beautiful tone.

This concerto of sorts was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, then a dazzling young cellist. For it, Prokofiev -- in failing health and a broken man in what were his last years and the last years of his nemesis, Joseph Stalin (they died on the same day in 1953) –- returned to his own more productive days. He refashioned an earlier cello concerto as a hybrid symphony/concerto with echoes of ballet. Themes in the character of his “Romeo and Juliet” are given an autumnal and sometimes sardonic, but not joyless, glow.

Neither Stumpf nor Afkham put much stress on the emotional ambiguities of this great and elusive   score. The cello’s technical difficulties were met with cool unflappability and the orchestra took a too supportive role. Afkham seemed happiest in the quick passages in the central movements. Stumpf’s glory came in the big cadenza, also in that movement, when he filled the hall with a rapt intensity.

But the big news is that David Afkham is on his way up.


Dudamels in the making? L.A. Phil names conducting fellows

-- Mark Swed

Photos: Above, David Afkham conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Lower, cellist Peter Stumpf. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.