Los Angeles Philharmonic Yannick Nezet-Seguin, guest conductor Martha Argerich, piano soloist 13 March, 2009 Walt Disney Concert Hall Program: Ravel: La Valse, Piano Concerto in G Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 By Fred Granlund Some artists become legendary during their own lives, either because of superhuman accomplishments (one thinks of Richter or Oistrakh), eccentricities (Glenn Gould, Sergiu Celibidache) or, not uncommonly, both. Pianist Martha Argerich certainly fits the description, and for both reasons. Often during her long career she has treated us to spellbinding performances of breathtaking virtuosity and blinding musical insight, but her willingness to test that insight with new ideas occasionally leads her into caricature-like readings and her prolonged absences from the concert stage and penchant for cancelling as many engagements as she plays seem only to add to her mystique. This time, she did appear (quite grandly), played with her customary brilliance and only once drifted into exaggeration in place of perfection. Her vehicle was the familiar Concerto in G by Ravel, a specialty of hers for many decades, and compared to her early recording of the work it must be said that her performance now has gained impressively in poise and depth. Of course, the work is a saucy, jazzy romp that might seem incompatible with those qualities, but Argerich found its natural moments for reflection and made them almost profound. Ravel might have been surprised (not to say scandalized) by her time- suspending ruminations in the opening movement, but they were a welcome respite from the dazzling brilliance around them; and the finale was even more brilliant. Only in the serene central movement did her expressive rubati go too far in disrupting the hypnotic siciliana rhythm (Michelangeli showed us how to achieve both hypnotism and fluidity at the same time--a truly magical effect). The guest conductor for the occasion was the young Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who not only managed to keep up with his hardly-predictable soloist (a feat in itself) but fully matched her imaginative approach to the Concerto. And in the concert's opening work, Ravel's La Valse, he even surpassed her at taffy-pulling rubati and surprising tempo manipulations. It was all quite effective, if occasionally bizarre, but Ravel's over-the-top caricature of the Viennese waltz invites that sort of treatment, and it's actually rare to find a conductor willing to take it this seriously. The serious challenge, however, was the familiar-but-still-enigmatic Fifth Symphony by Shostakovich that occupied the second half of the concert. Here the young maestro reaffirmed his willingness to engage the music on its own terms, maintaining impressive concentration during the quiet moments and neither slighting the massive climaxes nor allowing them to degenerate into empty bombast. He steered a central course between the works layered meanings (obedient Soviet optimism on the surface, surreptitious sarcasm and tragedy beneath) and avoided exaggerating either extreme. He only approximated the composer's very slow tempo indications, and tended toward awkward gear-shifts instead of integrated transitions, but the overall shape of the work was secure, along with the passion to hold it together. The details may well sort themselves out over the next few performances. In any case, with such an impressive debut behind him, Nezet-Seguin will undoubtedly be back in future seasons, and we will have the chance to see what develops. Throughout the evening, the Philharmonic was in top form, playing with their customary precision and intensity. In the Concerto, it was impossible to tell whether they were following the conductor's emphatic gestures or simply playing chamber music with the soloist--but the result was seamless. And the opening waltz-mania and concluding symphonic grandeur were quite stunning. As always, the Disney Hall audience was wildly appreciative, and the conductor--who knew exactly why it all sounded so spectacular--called for solo bows from all the principals, led by Catherine Ransom (flute), Ariana Ghez (oboe), Lorin Levee (clarinet), Shawn Mouser (bassoon) and William Lane (horn), and eventually including everyone on the stage. A similar uproar before Intermission had led to well-deserved recognition for the major contributors, including the redoubtable Mr. Lane and the ever-captivating Ms. Ransom, as well as for Carolyn Hove's ravishing English Horn solo in the Concerto. But the soloist remained the center of attention, as she commandeered the conductor as her keyboard partner for the "Fairy Garden" finale from Ravel's Mother Goose suite and, after much coaxing from the audience, returned once more for a Chopin mazurka. Certainly in the minds of her admirers, she truly is a legend.