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A Parade of Talent During Dudamel's L.A. Phil Absence

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Wednesday, December 15, 2010, at 12:33PM
Hilary Hahn Glen Ross

Violinist Hilary Hahn was one of the L.A. Philharmonic's guests in December.

Forget the fact that Gustavo Dudamel, now in his second season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is off spreading his talents elsewhere in the world. The parade of guest conductors and boldface virtuosos continues at Walt Disney Concert Hall - that gleaming marvel on the hill – and all of them are hosted by the resident band.

Lately, we’ve had a lineup of intriguing talent. There was the young French conductor Stéphane Denève and the old maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, along with pianist Nicholas Angelich and violinist Hilary Hahn.

And one grand feature of all these roster exchanges is hearing the differences brought to bear by an array of traveling musicians. Consider the old adage: everything depends on who does what, where and how. There’s that. But also remember, the band plays on. Sometimes with greater refinement, balance and clarity, sometimes with greater overall presence and sonic impact. Sometimes with less of both, but that would be rare for the Phil, which now performs with pretty predictable excellence.

Take Denève, for instance, a big man on the podium with big hair and glasses (pardon me, he looks like an overgrown Franz Schubert). We heard a great deal of refinement under his ministrations, the kind that picked up the delicate sparkle of Debussy’s “Ibéria,” and its skimming sensuality and also the faraway, blissful mysteries of Guillaume Connesson’s “Glimmer in the Age of Darkness,” with its Ravelian traces and even overly lush, commercial romanticism.

In fact, Denève’s approach was very much in sync with Angelich, playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. While they hit all the heroic high points together, the pianist also had support for his purling delicacy in the passagework and runs. Blustery, no. Aristocratic, yes. The whole concert was of a piece – with musicians on the same page, so to speak.

Ditto, the following week’s celebrants.

Hilary Hahn gave us a big-toned, luxuriant Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Unafraid of slowing down – her opening chords were actually of the “now listen to this, folks” style of playing – she dug in for gorgeous, burnished deliberative passages. And early on she even hit some squally, excited allegros high on the string. There was also a bit of self-consciousness on the stage during the orchestral parts. But her utter engagement and brilliant technique in the last movement’s propulsion led to an inevitable standing ovation – deserved and received.

For his part, Frühbeck de Burgos followed her meticulously, making every allowance she called for. But after intermission he indulged the troops with an all-out account of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” Truth to tell, we could have named it Berlioz’s Concerto for Orchestra, so elaborately displayed were each of its section contingencies. The band knows this score cold, given its staple status. But rarely does a conductor let it open up to this degree. Grand to hear, even at the sacrifice of that taut, tight, teetering at the high edge of madness that Berlioz wanted to convey. Still, the players had an exhilarating workout. Bully for them.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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