Los Angeles Philharmonic

Christian Zacharias, guest conductor & piano soloist
Mark Kashper, Ariana Ghez, Shawn Mouser, Brent Samuel, soloists
21 February, 2009
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Program:
Brahms: Serenade No. 2
Haydn: Sinfonia Concertante
Schumann: Piano Concerto

By Fred Granlund         



Intimacy isn't a quality usually associated with orchestra concerts in a 2,000-seat concert
hall, but this week the Los Angeles Philharmonic and guest conductor Christian Zacharias
showed us how to achieve it. Granted, the program didn't contain any of the big-orchestra
showpieces of the sort we heard earlier in the season, but neither was this a chamber-music
event. But the approach was definitely from that direction.
The program opened with Brahms' second Serenade, an early work but one notable for its
restraint, scored for a small orchestra without violins (or trumpets, drums, or anything else
that might break an intimate mood). Its subdued colors combine with the composer's typical
emotional warmth for a unique experience, more expansive than in his chamber music but
completely lacking the overt rhetoric of the symphonies and other orchestral works. Without
the usual violins to carry melodic duties, the work is something of an endurance test for the
wind players--who usually have far more time to rest during a 30-minute piece--but the
Philharmonic's dauntless wind section, led by flutist Catherine Ransom, oboist Marian
Arthur, clarinetist Michele Zukovsky and guest bassoonist Judith Farmer, shone brightly
throughout, despite the conductor's penchant for overly quick tempi in all but the final
movement.
At the other end of the program, Maestro Zacharias traded his baton for the keyboard,
serving as soloist in Robert Schumann's familiar Piano Concerto, which he conducted from
the piano whenever his hands weren't full elsewhere. This arrangement, where orchestra
and soloist work together in chamber-music fashion without the aid of a separate conductor,
works particularly well for Classical- and Baroque-period concerti, which present few
technical difficulties and utilize only a small orchestra. Schumann makes for a bigger
challenge, with its greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity and larger forces, but this
evening's performance was quite polished and often achieved the true chamber-music
intimacy implied in the score. Often, but not consistently, for Zacharias seemed intent on
exercising his solo and conducting duties at the expense of simply listening and making
music with his fine collaborators. Again the tempi were swift, but here not damagingly so,
except where he rushed past Michele Zukovsky's exquisite clarinet solos without seeming to
notice them.
In between the two 19th-Century works came the delightful Sinfonia Concertante by Joseph
Haydn, written for his first visit to London and showing him at the height of his powers. The
scoring for four soloists and a small orchestra made for the most intimate music-making of
the evening, and it was easy to imagine the scene at its first performance, with Johann
Salomon, the promoter who had lured Haydn to London and arranged all the concerts,
taking the flamboyant solo violin part and members of his hand-picked band filling the other
solo roles. The work is perfect for its obvious purpose of showing off the virtuosity of the
orchestra's musicians, and here the solo honors went to Associate Principal Second Violin
Mark Kashper, Associate Principal Bassoon Shawn Mouser, cellist Brent Samuel (in a
particularly daunting, high-flying solo part) and our ever-charming Principal Oboist Ariana
Ghez. Only the last measure of theatricality was missing from the violin solos (which include
mock-operatic recitatives and other heroics) and here Maestro Zacharias' tempi were
suitably relaxed--perhaps even too relaxed in the brilliant finale--and his work with the
soloists exemplary. Not heard here since Pinchas Zukerman presided over it in true
Salomon fashion back in the '70s, the work was a surprise hit with the audience.
These concerts are always too good to miss, and we always encourage readers to attend
whenever possible. The next several weeks will see visits by Sarah Chang, Martha Argerich,
Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic--and tickets will be scarce, so don't delay in
acquiring them.
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