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Music review: Thibaudet and Harth-Bedoya with the L.A. Phil

January 6, 2012 |  1:21 pm

Miguel Harth-Bedoya at the L.A. Phil
This review has been corrected as noted below.

Don’t bother to Google “sonic cushion.” Commerce, not poetry, regulates our daily searching, so what you’ll get are gizmos, pillows, quilts and the like. A true sonic cushion is not stuff but air -- billowy low vibrations offering sublime support and comfort.

An ideal example of just that could be found Thursday night during a magnificent Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The work is known as the “Organ” Symphony, but the organ enters only after a pleasantly agitated first movement peters out. The basses quietly pluck a low G, which the organ raises  by a half-step with a deep resonance that is hard to place in space or time. It forecasts a change of state and realm.

Something mysterious has entered the room with the rumble. Above that organ cushion, Saint-Saëns musters a mystical hymnal melody in the strings as fine and alluring as anything the popular French composer wrote. Maybe the fact that the L.A. Phil principal keyboard, Joanne Pearce Martin, is a skydiver helped her create the impressive cushion of organ sound, a kind of cloud of floating sonorities that gave the impression substance. Maybe it was just the great physicality of the Disney organ.

Joanne Pearce MartinHowever the magic was made, a sensitive listener felt it possible to float in air with sound for support. And a well-attended Disney Hall was full of sensitive listeners on Thursday. Serene slow movements aren’t normally singled out for applause. This one rightly was.

Liszt, not Saint-Saëns, was the evening’s theme, and particularly Liszt’s capacity to build compelling bombast out of practically nothing. The big work of the first half  was Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the soloist. The concerto, completed 25 years before the “Organ” Symphony, begins with lyrical, ethereal softness and through the fantastical manipulation of a theme winds up with gratifying bombast. Saint-Saëns follows that format as well.

The little that the L.A. Phil did for Liszt last year -- when the Hungarian composer’s 200th birthday was celebrated -- included this same concerto at the Hollywood Bowl in August, with André Watts as the pianist. He thundered through it. Thibaudet made the concerto sparkle with sustained brilliance.

Thibaudet and Harth-Bedoya are both members of the L.A. Phil’s extended family. The Peruvian conductor began his career as an assistant conductor to the orchestra in 1998 and proved so popular that a year later he was promoted to associate conductor. Now music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, Harth-Bedoya has grown considerably in stature.

The French pianist, a resident of L.A., has probably played in Disney as often as any piano soloist. Together, they provided an eloquently shaped and dazzling account of the Liszt. Details emerged with percussive clarity from Thibaudet. Liszt orchestration is often chamber-like, and Ben Hong’s cello solo in the slow movement was notable for its subtle beauty.

As for Harth-Bedoya, he was in his element with the Saint-Saëns. He made the symphony soar. Too often played with excessive bravado and an insufficient organ, the score has the reputation for pomposity, especially with its bellowing last movement. Harth-Bedoya found, instead, urgency and beguiling atmosphere.

The disappointment was that Harth-Bedoya, who has been deeply involved in propagating Latin American music, chose a mundane Dvorák overture to open the program. The surprise was that although the “Hussite” was yet another work that began quietly and went on to create bombast, Harth-Bedoya found ways to make an overlong 14-minute overture consistently interesting.

An argument in the overture’s favor may be that despite its familiar thumping main theme, the “Hussite” is a Dvorák score that the L.A. Phil had never gotten around to. And, yes, we do have a Venezuelan music director. But South America is a big and varied continent, and we hear but a tiny fraction of its music. There is plenty reason in this town to import Harth-Bedoya’s passions, especially given how impressive he’s become. 

RELATED:

Music review: Harth-Bedoya makes the night dance

Jean-Yves Thibaudet on film scores and classical music

Music review: Leonard Slatkin returns to the Hollywood Bowl

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $57.25 to $180. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

[For the record: An earlier version of this review said that the organ lowers the pitch at the beginning of the second movement by a half-step. It raises it.]

Photos, from top: Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concet Hall on Thursday night. Joanne Pearce Martin. Credit: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times.

an overlong 14-minute overture consistently interesting.
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