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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Marin Alsop, guest conductor
Nikolaj Znaider, violin soloist
13 December 2008
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Program:
Brahms: "Tragic" Overture
Violin Concerto
Symphony No. 1

By Fred Granlund        

After weeks of sonic spectaculars that seemed designed to show off the sensational sound of the
orchestra--music by Stravinsky, Revueltas, Respighi and Richard Strauss--an evening devoted entirely to
music by Johannes Brahms seemed like a bracing return to serious symphonic fare. But it certainly wasn't
any less spectacular than the showy programs of recent months, as the orchestra under guest conductor
Marin Alsop showed the same power and polish as before, along with the concentration and finesse to
meet Brahms' "serious" demands.
Marin Alsop is the first woman ever engaged as the Music Director of a major symphony orchestra in the
US (or anywhere else, for that matter). She is now in her second season leading the Baltimore Symphony,
after previous appointments with the Colorado Symphony and the Bournemouth Symphony in England. She
continues to lead the Cabrillo Music Festival here in California and is a busy guest conductor with
orchestras all over the world, where she was reputedly the first woman ever to conduct the La Scala Opera
Orchestra in 230 years.
For the past several years, she has been recording the music of Brahms with the London Philharmonic
Orchestra for Naxos Records, a project clearly responsible for tonight's program. And it's good to report
that unlike many of her respected older colleagues, she doesn't merely accept the standard reading of a
deep and complex score like the First Symphony, but approaches it with imagination and willingness to let
the music lead her on its own path. Which means that her interpretation is a work in progress, changing
and refining with her relationship to the music, with unfamiliar details already emerging from the depths and
others still to come. For example, she allows the tempo to relax for the mysterious development section of
the first movement, but snaps back to the original tempo before the buildup to the real climax 22 bars
later--a missed opportunity that will surely be corrected as her concept of the movement matures. Other
moments of real insight, and occasional opportunities for further refinement, occur throughout the
Symphony, and it will be fascinating to watch it all evolve. Her "Tragic Overture" is still in a more embryonic
stage, its expression of raw emotions--far more immediate than anything in the Symphony--still rather
muted and awaiting further unveiling.
The Violin Concerto is, of course, less the conductor's piece than the soloist's, though a meeting of the
minds (and hearts) is certainly a step toward a great performance. Nikolaj Znaider clearly has a firm view of
the work, emotionally generous and warmly reflective. One suspects conductor Alsop might have preferred
a more direct approach--at this stage in her work, at least--but she backed her soloist to the limit, and
missed only a few opportunities to make even grander statements when on her own in the "tutti" sections.
Not surprisingly, Ariana Ghez made the passionate oboe solo that opens the slow movement a whole
musical experience in itself, to the obvious appreciation of both conductor and soloist. Also quite
expectedly, the Disney Hall audience was wildly enthusiastic about it all. Even the serious stuff gets them
excited.
The Philharmonic subscription season is on "hold" for the holidays, with various seasonal programs filling in
at Disney Hall. The regular concerts resume January 10th when Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen returns
to conduct an assortment of works from Mozart and Brahms to Stavinsky and Janacek (and the premieres
of several new works commissioned by the Philharmonic). Tickets will be scarce for many concerts, but well
worth tracking down. Maestro Salonen's final season with the Philharmonic is, indeed, turning out to be a
real celebration.