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Review: Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

May 24, 2009 |  3:06 pm

Christoph Eschenbach is a complex, excellent conductor, not always easy to assess.  Thin and erect, with shaved head and large cranium, dressed in avant-garde sleek black shirt and slacks, he looked like some inscrutable creature of advanced intelligence out of the future when he stood on the podium of the Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday.  This was the first night of his two weeks with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the last two weeks of the orchestra’s season.

The program was originally supposed to have been two works – Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony – from Stalinist Russia written about the same time (late World War II and its aftermath).  But with the cancellation of the young German violinist Julia Fischer, Eschenbach made a strange substitution.  Instead of Shostakovich’s anguished, substantial postwar concerto, he opened the program with Tchaikovsky’s anguished, splashy, much earlier tone poem “Francesca da Rimini.”

The anguish was clearly the point here in an imaginatively neurotic, over-the-top performance.  Which is not to say that things haven’t been looking up for Eschenbach since he last performed Tchaikovsky in Disney.  That was two years ago when he appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which had just given him a vote of no confidence as music director and not renewed his contract.  Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that night was an unintentional, ill-balanced mess, the players having refused a sound check in an unfamiliar venue.

Now, the post-Philly Eschenbach will take over the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., the season after next.  Meanwhile the financially troubled, leaderless, possibly humbled "Fabulous" Philadelphians have perhaps realized what they lost.  Eschenbach has been invited back as a guest conductor.

I wish these players could have heard “Francesca” Friday night.  The performance was another mess, but not ill-balanced and not unintentional.  Rather, it was the mess that was the emotionally tortured Tchaikovsky.  Over 25 fairly sloppy minutes, the composer follows the tragedy, from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” of a young girl tricked into a political marriage. She winds up thrown to the winds with her brother-in-law lover in the second circle of hell. 

Hell, for Eschenbach Friday, was a raw torrent of uncontrollable rage, contrasted with the lovers' juicy big tune, which featured an exquisitely liquid clarinet solo from Lorin Levee.  The clarinet was pretty, but the orchestra often was not.  Eschenbach wanted a crazy speed just past the safety zone for hairpin turns.  It was quite a show.

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony proved even more intense.  Premiered in early 1945, just as the Soviets had broken the German front in the Ukraine, the score opens in a dark mood with a dark Tchaikovskian sound and a somber, poignant, memorable melody.  The end, 45 minutes later, is a conflation of horror and triumph, the hope and anguish of victory. 
Recently in Orange County, Valery Gergiev, who grew up under the Soviets, led an extraordinarily powerful performance of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra.  His passions were deep but always swelled to the surface.  I can’t necessarily tell you what the Russian soul is, but I knew it when I heard it that night.

Eschenbach, who was born in Germany in 1940, was after something different in what was also an attention-grabbing performance.  I’ve written before about Eschenbach’s stark sense of rhythm both as a pianist and conductor, and that may well be a hallmark of his performances of a Schubert piano sonata and a Bruckner symphony next week.

Friday, the balletic scherzo movement certainly sizzled, and climaxes in the first and last movement were karate-chop on the beat.  There was suavity in the slow movement.  But Eschenbach seemed in the grip of the weird momentum of war.  Dance could be the dance of death.  Beautiful moonlight was moonlight as seen from the bloodstained trenches.

Inner turmoil became outer turmoil as Eschenbach fussed with inner lines and dramatically shifted tempos.  With Gergiev you never knew what was coming next, but there was ground under the music’s feet.  On Eschenbach’s emotional roller coaster, nothing felt certain.  The Philharmonic played as if in an exhilarated state of shock.  The point of the evening’s Dante-inspired first half became clear.  War is hell.  Again, this performance was quite a show.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Christoph Eschenbach. Credit: Michael Tammaro / Los Angeles Philharmonic