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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director
Emanuel Ax, piano soloist
10 January, 2009
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Mozart: The Impressario Overture
Part: Symphony No. 4
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1

By Fred Granlund         

Beginning the new year at Disney Hall, the Philharmonic and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen are
offering several weeks of bracing programs including the premieres of several new works commissioned
by the orchestra for this, his final season here. This week, Mozart and Brahms shared the spotlight with
a new work by Estonian Arvo Part.
One of the Philharmonic's new commissions, underwritten in this case by patrons Leonore and Bernard
Greenberg, Part's work was originally billed as "new work for string orchestra" and paired on the
program with Mozart's dramatic C-minor Serenade for Winds. That it grew into a full-scale symphony
(for strings and percussion, as it turned out), necessitating the substitution of the 5-minute
"Impressario" Overture for the 25-minute Serenade, comes as a welcome bonus. [The Overture is a
delightful, and neglected, gem, written to preface a goofy one-act farce about the backstage
machinations of a pair of egomaniac sopranos and their long-suffering manager. But the Serenade is
one of Mozart's greatest works, a true "symphony for wind octet," and one hopes it will yet appear on a
Disney Hall program, perhaps for the Philharmonic Chamber Music Society, where Ariana Ghez,
Michele Zukovsky and their colleagues will make it a truly moving experience.] Part's Symphony is both
darker and more substantial than his other recent works, but shares with them his predilection for tonal
vagueness (clusters that somehow only blur its tonality rather than obscure it completely) and bell
sounds. Much of it unfolds in unruffled serenity, in the composer's most familiar vein, but there is a
more dramatic central movement with aggressive percussion writing and a high energy level. At first
hearing, it's a coherent and satisfying work, certainly audience-friendly, and it invites further
listening--which, of course, is impossible for now. But perhaps the cloud of microphones hovering over
the stage will produce a commercial recording of this auspicious premiere, or at least a radio or internet
broadcast of the concert. In any case, the composer was on hand to share the accolades, and the
warm audience reception should have made him feel more than welcome.
Programming a world premiere is always tricky, even with as well-known a composer as Part, so a
popular soloist and a favorite concerto to guarantee a large audience is always a good idea, even
when the concerto is the monumental Brahms "No. 1" that tends to overshadow even the excitement of
a world premiere. Soloist Emanuel Ax told a recent interviewer that he considers the Brahms concerti
too difficult for normal mortals to play well, but he manages them both with considerable technical
finesse and real emotional depth (the wonderful thing about great music like this is that one can keep
striving for perfection even after giving the performance of a lifetime--there's always more to achieve).
This performance never quite settled down, with conductor Salonen pushing things along during the
first movement and the unfazed soloist luxuriating in the drama and romance of it all (the orchestra
characteristically followed the soloist when he was playing, and the conductor when he wasn't). The
second movement reversed the roles, with Salonen resolutely hewing to a true adagio while the soloist
often tried to move forward. But the Finale showed no differences over tempi, and instead proceeded
as the brilliant virtuoso romp Brahms clearly intended, without the excess weight it often gathers in
modern performances. The Disney Hall audience--always appreciative if tonight afflicted with seasonal
respiratory issues--gave it all a standing ovation.
Next week, a dual set of programs will showcase music by Stravinsky and Janacek along with two more
world premieres: a concerto for two pianos by Louis Andriessen (with the charismatic Labeque sisters)
and "La Passion de Simone," a stage work by Salonen compatriot Kaija Saariaho. A few tickets may still
be available at the usual places, but won't be for long.