Pablo Heras-Casado, guest conductor Kate Royal, soprano soloist 21 March 2009 Walt Disney Concert Hall Program: Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 Mahler: Symphony No. 4 By Fred Granlund The 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn went by a few weeks ago, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic seems to be observing that event (without any formal announcement) by including a substantial amount of his music on the February and March programs. James Conlon conducted an all-Mendelssohn concert last month featuring the familiar Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang, and both of his piano trios and some works for string quartet have appeared on the Philharmonic Chamber Music series, all leading up to performances of his two most popular symphonies: the "Italian" on this program and the "Scottish" next week. It's a lot of exposure in a short time, especially for someone many consider to be something of a "lightweight" composer, but since few listeners will attend all these concerts it's mostly a chance for everyone to hear and contemplate, and perhaps re-assess, some of his music. This concert provided a useful contrast between Mendelssohn's musical postcard from sunny Italy and Gustav Mahler's sunniest work, his own Fourth Symphony. Yuri Temirkanov, the evening's intended conductor, bowed out for unexplained "personal reasons" (at least we can be relatively sure they weren't political reasons, as beset Russian musicians in earlier times) and his replacement was yet another in the current series of emerging young conductors with hyphenated names visiting here, the 31-year old Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado. Associated with opera companies and orchestras around Europe as well as in Spain, he made his Philharmonic debut on this occasion. The results were stimulating and encouraging. Mendelssohn's symphony emerged crisp and brisk (as it should) and a little impersonal: a polished performance, with all the details in place and the customary brilliant playing from the orchestra, but with little imprint of the conductor (one assumes that allowing the horns and timpani to overbalance the strings wasn't an interpretive decision). But the Mahler symphony on the second half of the program was a different experience entirely. Perhaps pinch-hitting for another conductor obliged him to learn the work quickly--he conducted from the score, unlike in the Mendelssohn--but here the music sounded freshly- discovered, the composer's detailed directions (calling for a momentary pause here, a burst of speed there, and a million adjustments in tone and expression) not merely followed but integrated into an interpretation very much at one with the spirit of the music. Again the Philharmonic played with power and precision, but also with a depth and sensitivity that reaffirmed the players' collective affinity with Mahler's singular musical aesthetic, incorporating everything from the popular music of his day to the most sublime inspirations ("the whole world," in the composer's words) into a coherent if not completely homogenized whole. The soloist in the final movement, the young British soprano Kate Royal, was also making her Philharmonic debut on this occasion. Already a veteran of many performances with the Royal Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival, the English National Opera and festivals around Europe, she approaches Mahler's little song about a child's vision of Heaven with a bright, clear voice and a good deal of dramatization--not exactly the most logical choice, but effective in the context of such a vivid orchestral performance. As always, the Disney Hall audience was very appreciative, and the conductor made a point of sharing the applause with the orchestra, in particular with it's matchless principal players. Next week, the mini-Mendelssohn festival continues with Herbert Blomstedt conducting the composer's symphonic masterpiece, the "Scottish" Symphony, along with works by Handel and Haydn--and we highly recommend these and all the upcoming concerts to our readers. The best music in the best performances, heard in the best acoustics, anywhere around, just steps from the Metro stop and easy to reach. Student and senior rush tickets are still only $10--the best bargain in town.