Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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I could never take the place of your man

May 07, 2008

Christoph von Dohnányi and The Philharmonia Orchestra
Photo : mine 2008

Last night was the first of two performances from London’s Philharmonia Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles. This was the group’s debut in the hall, and Christoph von Dohnányi, their current Principal Conductor, led the performance. Of course, this position will soon be vacated only to be occupied by the L.A. Phil's soon-to-exit music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, starting this Fall. So, in some ways, this show was kind of like meeting your ex’s new boyfriend shortly after he’s dumped you. Of course, this is completely unfair considering that Salonen has a long-standing relationship with the Philharmonia and it's certainly not the matter of his leaving Los Angeles in order simply to take on another conducting position in London. Still, seeing the new, younger, sexier occupant of your former position can rub against the grain. Salonen was there last night sitting next to Peter Sellars who is in town for who knows what. But, while the L.A. Philharmonic big wigs and press were all there, apparently the locals didn’t get the memo in that there were more than a few empty seats throughout the hall.

The show itself was rather meat and potatoes – Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 and Mahler’s First. Why you ask? Hell if I know, but there it was. Dohnányi gets a bad wrap in some circles, but his leadership here was completely reasonable if not always ideal. The Mendelssohn was no-nonsense. Brisk without airs, this very young-appearing orchestra played a spirited and totally sensible version of the work. Mahler, of course, is always the greater challenge in that his music is anything but sensible and sooner or later decisions are going to have to be made. Dohnányi came out swinging with a surprisingly aggressive account at times. Not that it was sloppy or insensitive, but a little overpowering and unnecessarily loud in spots. The players clearly had a lot of spirit though and in the end seemed to pass the most important test – they acted like they truly cared about what they were playing and looked like they were having a heck of a time doing it. On balance, not a half-bad evening. Tomorrow’s even less interesting program includes Beethoven’s 5th and Schumann’s 1st for those who may be interested.

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In their SF run, the Schumann was simply amazing and the Beethoven pretty weak — so, not a ringing endorsement.

But actually the pattern up here seemed a little more consistent, and frankly a little odd. Namely: Start off strong, then just kind of taper off in quality. The Schumann was the first piece on the first night, and it was superb, then the Mahler was more diffuse. The second night was weaker overall than the first, and it also started pretty well but faded in the finish.

All of which is to say that you probably got as good as you're gonna get from them in the Mendelssohn.
Actually quite a good show, given the works involved.
Talk about a young and white orchestra though!
Makes the LA Phil look like a meeting of the UN by comparison!
Liked the Mahler but yet while the Italian still does not get it for me, I was glad to have heard it at Disney Hall, as opposed to its always relegated Hollywood Bowl venue with the LA or Hwd. Bowl orchestra.
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