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Music review: Vasily Petrenko and Alexander Gavrylyuk at the Bowl

July 27, 2011 |  2:18 pm

Having opened the first two weeks of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s summer season, Gustavo Dudamel is now gone until fall. So it might seem like it's back to business as usual at the Hollywood Bowl. Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko and Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk were on hand Tuesday night for typical amphitheater warhorses -– Dvorák’s “Carnival” Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sibelius’ Second Symphony Tuesday night. Attendance dropped an average of 2,000 from the Dudamel nights, down to 7,547.

But business as usual isn’t a fair description. Petrenko, who turned 35 this month, is an exciting conductor very much on the move. Gavrylyuk is a passionate, iron-fingered young pianist. The performances were idea-laden and surprising, which is very difficult to pull off not only in such over-played repertory but also at the Bowl, where rehearsal is severely limited and the sound system might have an acoustical mind of its own.

Although hardly big names, Petrenko and Gavrylyuk have clearly won over the L.A. Philharmonic. Both have been invited back after recent successes, coincidentally both in Tchaikovsky. Petrenko conducted the “Manfred” Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall in January. Gavrylyuk played the Second Piano Concerto in the "Tchaikovsky Spectacular" at the Bowl last September.

AlexanderG Slender and boyish looking, Petrenko studied with Esa-Pekka Salonen, and he has picked up some of the qualities of a thirtysomething Salonen, particularly certain hand and arm gestures. Rhythmic incisiveness and a strong forward drive are among his strong suits. And that has worked well for him. He is a popular chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic; his Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich recordings are celebrated. He has just been appointed music director of the Oslo Philharmonic.

On Tuesday, he had the L.A. Philharmonic sounding crisp and muscular. Yet in slow, lyrical passages, he was able to entice a vibrating string sound that had both grit and emotion. It was expression on two levels. On the surface, there was a kind of raw toughness, as if not wanting to show too much emotion. But Petrenko didn't mask the underlying intensity. That meant that Tchaikovsky remained unsentimental but still heartfelt. Cool Sibelius was given a warm center. Dvorák’s “Carnival” was snappy, but also ecstatic in the way of early Wagner.

If the Bowl has a theme song, it is Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. A couple of people near me actually laughed at the famous opening piano flourish. There was nothing laughable, however, about Gavrylyuk’s percussive attacks. Both he and Petrenko offered a Stravinsky-style approach to Tchaikovsky. At times they may have gone a little too far in making the familiar seem bold. But that didn’t stop them from milking as much melancholy as was feasible in the slow movement. The last movement had the force of a couple of extra g’s of gravitational momentum, which is what the Bowl likes best.

Petrenko had points to make in Sibelius. Again he played to the Bowl, which is no place for Sibelius’ miraculous wisps of sound. And especially not on a night such as Tuesday. What is unfortunate business as usual is this summer’s plague of pesky helicopters obnoxiously clattering overhead, as if pretending to be warplanes attacking music.

Petrenko, though, seemed to sense what was needed, which was something robust and outdoorsy. The walking pizzicato basses that open the slow movement helped guide several who had dallied too long at intermission as they scurried back to their boxes, coffee cups in hand. There was some lovely wind playing in the slow movement. The Scherzo, marked vivacissimo, was especially propulsive, perhaps meant as a means for driving away overhead intruders.

Remarkably, the Finale was not exhilarating. Here Petrenko -- who returns to the Bowl Thursday --  took an expansively robust approach that was impressively grand. Now it was as if we were in the helicopters taking in the vast landscape below. This was not where I had thought he was going with this symphony, and he didn’t completely make it work. But a big finish is always a nice way to end an eventful evening.


Music review: Vasily Petrenko conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Music review: Bramwell Tovey, Alexander Gavrylyuk, Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl

-- Mark Swed

Photos: Conductor Vasily Petrenko and Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times