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Music review: Nicholas McGegan and Robert Levin, tricksters at the Los Angeles Philharmonic

December 17, 2010 | 12:59 pm

The bouncy Nicholas McGegan and boastful Robert Levin came to Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night to play. The games were devised by Mozart, Haydn and pompous Luigi Cherubini more than 200 years ago, but someone forgot to tell that to these ageless kids. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was the team.

McGegan began by impishly slapping around Cherubini's “Anacréon” Overture. The energetic British Baroque specialist signaled the winds individually to come out fighting. Then dancing, bobbing, throwing punches with both hands, he brought the rest of the orchestra into the fray.

Beethoven said nice things about Cherubini (as if he had to worry about competition from his Italian contemporary who tried to break into French society). Riccardo Muti, pretty much alone among the majors, champions Cherubini. Long Beach Opera will attempt a rare performance of the composer’s “Medea” next month.

The New Grove Dictionary of Opera dismisses "Anacréon," describing it as never successful “either in France or elsewhere.” Toscanini liked the overture and Artur Rodzinski introduced it to the L.A. Philharmonic in 1931. But McGegan did the unthinkable, he made this 10-minute curtain-raiser seem like a rare invention, its advanced instrumental effects and elusive melodies anticipating the Berlioz of 30 years later. Some composers, it seems, just need a slugger.

The main attraction was Levin, who was soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22. He walked onstage, grabbed a microphone and immediately, like a magician, challenged the audience to stump him.

The musically literate were instructed to write down, at intermission, a melody in the style of Mozart. He would then begin the second half of the program by picking four of them blindly from a bowl and improvise a fantasy around them. If the keys were distant, no matter -- he would, he said, pilot the elevator from toys in the basement to the lingerie on the fifth floor.

He also let it be known that he would be improvising the cadenzas and maybe a few other little bits in the Mozart concerto. Here he challenged the orchestra. Levin seemed to like nothing better than tossing off a spectacular pianistic flourish and then turning to the players, as a jazz musician might, with a brassy check-that-out gesture. The orchestra pretty much ignored him.

Levin is known as a specialist of the historic fortepiano (the keyboard of Mozart’s time) who is able to get into the 18th century mindset. But what perhaps keeps Levin’s Mozartean swagger from seeming insufferable is that he is a pianist (on Thursday he stuck with a modern grand) also of this world. He commissions contemporary works and has an outstanding new recording of the piano music by the 94-year-old French composer Henri Dutilleux.

In Mozart’s concerto, inspiration did not strike in the big first movement cadenza, which seemed a bit perfunctory and loaded with flashy boilerplate compared with the one on Levin’s 1998 fortepiano recording of the concerto. The pianist did, though, provide some touchingly beautiful embellishments in the slow movement. The boisterous Finale suited him just fine as musical jungle gym for an Olympian gymnast.

The improvisation after intermission wound up being three Mozart-like tunes and a Christmas carol. “Fasten your seat belts,” he announced. On his nine-minute wild ride, the elevator hit all the floors and not in order and not by obeying the rules of gravity or the needs of its occupants’ stomachs. It was a blast.

The program ended with Haydn’s Symphony No. 93, and it was a blast too. Alert to Haydn’s wit, color and theatrical surprises, McGegan not only punched out this score but danced it as well, especially in the 3/4-time first movement and the Menuetto. The L.A. Philharmonic players looked as if they were trying hard to keep up their concert faces. Close your eyes and you could hear they were elated. 

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic with Nicholas McGegan and Robert Levin, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $44-$167. (323) 850-2000 or

Photo: Pianist Robert Levin, left, after performing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 with Nicholas McGegan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.