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Music review: James Conlon and Lise de la Salle play Prokofiev [corrected]

March 5, 2010 |  2:30 pm

Thursday night, James Conlon crossed the street. And in so doing, he temporarily forsook a Germany caught up in its own destructive influences to explore the great Soviet experiment in Russia. The intersection was 1st and Grand.

Conlon, who is music director of Los Angeles Opera, soon will be Teutonically absorbed in the pit of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for many months with Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle and also Franz Schreker’s “The Stigmatized,” which is part of the company’s “Recovered Voices” project of reviving German operas repressed by the Nazis. But for a guest appearance this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Conlon turned to Prokofiev.

The program consisted of dramatically compelling performances of some of the Russian composer’s most brilliant (as well as least troubled or troubling) scores from his two Soviet periods. On the first half were two early works, the First Piano Concerto and “Classical” Symphony of a dazzling young composer caught up in the sweeping changes pulsing through Russian life in the second decade of the 20th century. After intermission, Conlon turned to excerpts from the ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” composed in 1935 and part of Prokofiev’s repatriation with his homeland after a number of years in the West.

Many of those expatriate years were spent in France, and the big news Thursday happened to be the Disney debut of a young pianist from Cherbourg. Though only 21, Lise de la Salle is already a Prokofiev old hand. She’s made several first-rate recordings, including a Prokofiev disc. In 2008, she played Prokofiev’s First Concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Dressed in a bright blue gown, hair back, she appeared pleasantly cosmopolitan, looking, as she walked on stage, as though she could be strolling along a fashionable Parisian boulevard. It’s all a disguise. She is a pianist of steel. Her tone is hard, glittery, crystal clear. Her fingers are long, slender and very fast, very accurate, dazzlingly percussive.

She is also nearly the same age Prokofiev was when the composer, still in the conservatory, used the concerto to announce himself on St. Petersburg’s musical scene as a budding modernist with a startling keyboard technique. Some thought him mad, some a genius.

He was still learning his way around the orchestra, which is overlarge and somewhat clumsily used, and Conlon did not hold back. De la Salle is no Russian pounder, but she remained so rhythmically focused and precise that she seldom had any trouble being heard. She was not showy. She played with little body movement or facial expression. But serious to the task at hand, she proved all the more mesmerizing for being so.

Indeed, hers was so complete a performance that all that was lacking was an encore. Her Prokofiev recordings include the Toccata, Opus 11, written just after the concerto, and also piano transcriptions of six pieces from “Romeo and Juliet,” all tailor-made for the occasion.

Conlon In the “Classical” Symphony and Conlon’s own selection of 11 numbers from "Romeo and Juliet," he emphasized a big sound, dug-in playing, strongly etched phrases and rich instrumental colors. The ballet, in particular, was epic and heroic; Romeo died as grandly as Wagner kills off Siegfried.

So perhaps Conlon didn’t travel so far across 1st Street after all. At least it could seem that way in comparison with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s lighter more luminous  performance of his selection of excerpts from the same ballet three years ago, which were recorded live on DG Concerts.

But the heavier Conlon achieved a ravishing atmosphere, and the thunder, when it arrived, had the power to do real damage. And the orchestra sounded absolutely delighted to be able to throw one sonic knockout punch after another.

-- Mark Swed

[Correction: The headline on an earlier version of this review misspelled Lise de la Salle's first name.]

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Click here for information from the L.A. Phil website.

Photos: (top) Lise de la Salle performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall; (below) James Conlon. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times