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Music review: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos at the L.A. Philharmonic

February 14, 2010 | 12:02 pm

For all its fascination with youth, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, while Gustavo Dudamel is away, has hardly become no country for old men. Last month, Lorin Maazel (79) spent two weeks at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Last weekend, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (76) was on the podium; he was preceded the previous week by Herbert Blomstedt (82) and will be followed by Charles Dutoit (73).

Esa-Pekka Salonen, when he turned 50 in 2008, printed T-shirts with the slogan “50 is the next 70.” But the fact is, conductors age exceptionally well. A 95-year-old Leopold Stokowski remained a gratifyingly flashy conductor right up to his death in 1975. Nor, I’m happy to report, has the Spanish-German Frühbeck lost his flamboyance.

His manner is courtly. His gestures are sweeping and charismatic. He is a connoisseur of colorful French, Spanish and Russian music. They especially love him in Boston and Philadelphia, where he brings back memories by extracting the ripe, fleshy sounds of their orchestras of yore.

It looked to me as though the L.A. musicians were won over as well Saturday night, when Frühbeck led a program of narrative, atmospheric works by Schumann, Debussy and Ravel. In each, he savored everything.

He showed little concern for the mystery of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. His Rhine was not a river of play or mystical mists but instead the font of sensuous waters. Cologne’s majestic cathedral, so imposing for Schumann, became a house of heightened sensations. The last movement was a riot of color, not a phrase that usually comes to mind in Schumann’s orchestral music.

Frühbeck accomplished all this by essentially dancing with all the ladies. He favored the use of a large orchestra and appeared to fancy everyone in it. He enticed from violins sweetness; from cellos and basses, voluptuousness. He has a way with brass, and the players were in excellent form. For him a normally hidden trumpet flourish is a moment too delicious to let pass without extra spice. The winds played as though they had his undivided attention.

There is, though, a risk in making Schumann sound so gorgeous and even amorous. What do you then do with Debussy’s fin-d’siecle exoticism?  His “Nocturnes,” which began the second half of Saturday’s program, end with what John Magnum described in his program note as a “gorgeous tapestry of sound.”  That was followed by the second suite from Ravel’s ballet, “Daphnis and Chloe,” which was written in 1912 and contains what is surely the most ravishing and ecstatic music that had yet been heard.

Throughout both of these French works, Frühbeck kept spinning the color wheel. If there wasn't much left of the luminous glow of Salonen’s “Nocturnes” (he recorded it with the orchestra in 1993 and later used the three-movement score as foil for Wagner in the “Tristan Project”), what Frühbeck wanted was a night of corporeal indulgence.

The playing was voluptuous and not to be resisted, even if the voluptuousness went too far in the final movement, “Sirènes,” which uses a female choir in the background. The sirens of the Los Angeles Master Chorale were positioned demurely behind the trumpets and trombones, but Frühbeck treated them musically as front and center, and they sang with entrancing fervor.

With the Ravel, ripe became overripe. The suite begins with a spectacular Technicolor sunrise and ends with an orgy. Frühbeck was not, in his savoring, a shy conductor.

In the middle comes the seduction by Pan. The orchestra is said to still be smarting over the recent publicized desertion back to Chicago of a candidate for principal flute, but it needn’t. The associate principal flutist, Catherine Ransom Karoly, played Pan’s lustful flute solo brilliantly.

By no means has the L.A. Philharmonic lost its own welcome lust for hot-shot youth. Three 20-somethings -- Diego Matheuz, Robin Ticciati and Lionel Bringuier -- will lead the orchestra in March, before Dudamel returns in April. But as Frühbeck demonstrated with more than a little finesse Saturday, there is also something to be said for a bit of experience . 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony on Saturday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times