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Review: Christian Zacharias beguiles with the L.A. Phil

February 20, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Christian ZachariasHybrids proved the animating idea behind pianist-conductor Christian Zacharias’ odd but beguiling Los Angeles Philharmonic program of Brahms, Haydn and Schumann at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night.

With the orchestra’s forces reduced to chamber size (no violins or trumpets), Zacharias began with Brahms’ lovely Serenade No. 2. The piece, in five relatively quiet and intimate movements, falls somewhere between serenade and symphony.

Though it’s a young man’s work, Zacharias’ finely measured performance, full of vibrancy and warmth, expertly blended light and shadow, suggesting the great symphonist to come.

Zacharias, a German born 59 years ago in India, earned his reputation as a specialist in music of the Classical period. But his natural restraint paradoxically underlined Brahms’ Romantic-era dreaminess. Much of the melodic writing went to the philharmonic’s woodwinds -- in top form all night -- and they sustained the conductor’s ethereal approach even in the serious, more recognizably Brahmsian central Adagio.

After delivering plenty of rhythmic lift in the Scherzo, Zacharias effortlessly caught the ebb and flow of the delightful Rondo finale.

In Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante in B flat, the four soloists -- Mark Kashper, violin; Brent Samuel, cello; Ariana Ghez, oboe; and Shawn Mouser, bassoon -- each managed with unforced spontaneity the many lines that move in and out of the work’s orchestral texture.

The Sinfonia, actually a combination symphony, concerto and concerto grosso (a form conceived for groups of soloists that was in vogue during the Baroque era), challenges a conductor with matters of balance. But Zacharias’ lively reading elicited a rich sound from the orchestra, never allowing the modern instruments to become too weighty.

After intermission, a lidless piano faced the philharmonic for Zacharias’ traversal of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, another combo of a sort. Indeed, writing to his wife, Clara, who premiered the work, Schumann lamented of piano concertos: “They are hybrids of symphony, concerto and big sonata.”

And that is how Zacharias performed the piece, weaving its strands into a tender, beautiful whole. Conducting from the keyboard, he caught the mercurial moods of the opening Allegro, proved sensitive to the intimate exchanges between piano and woodwinds and then performed the virtuoso cadenza not as a “big sonata” showstopper but rather the way the composer intended, as another inspired part of the orchestral fabric.

One quibble: Some concertos fare less well when the pianist is also the conductor. Schumann’s is among them. Zacharias swaying and awkwardly pointing over the keyboard to different sections of the philharmonic was especially distracting in the first movement. During the two poetic but tricky linked final movements, his demanding dual role occasionally suggested a frantic conductor trying to juggle. But he played to the ears, not the eyes, with winning results.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 s. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $42-$147. (323) 850-2000 or

-- Rick Schultz

Photo: Christian Zacharias. Credit: Nicole Chuard