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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
03/23/2003 -  
Maurice Ravel: Mother Goose Suite, La Valse
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs
Witold Lutoslawski: Symphony # 4

Karita Mattila (soprano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

The first glorious weekend of spring in New York was welcomed with some decidedly autumnal music when Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his excellent Los Angeles Philharmonic to Avery Fisher Hall. The program seemed much more concerned with endings than beginnings, pairing two of the previous century’s most definitively final pieces as conclusions for each half of the concert.

But first, a flight of fancy. When I last heard this leader and ensemble, they were on their own home turf, the soon to be abandoned Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. At that time, maestro dazzled with the finest performance of the Daphnis et Chloe, Suite # 2 in memory. His ability to prod his forces into extraordinary bursts of color while still keeping proper balance carried forward to this afternoon, as the left coast Phil danced on winds positively fairy-blown in this light and glittering rendition. This orchestra is as good as any in America (why doesn’t anyone know this?), giving even the fabulous Philadelphians a good run. The strings are lush but nimble, the woodwinds precise and poetic, the brass warm and accurate, the percussion, so vital in spots to Ravel’s nursery, bright and crisp. All in all, this was the best reading of this piece that I have ever experienced live.

Karita Mattila has been making quite a splash in New York this season, particularly impressive as Jenufa. Hers is the quintessential Straussian voice, powerful and a bit heavy, solid and comfortable, like a good German meal. Actually, I prefer a somewhat lighter touch in these songs, such as plied by Renee Fleming, but Ms. Mattila, like Eva Marton before her (or Schwarzkopf for that matter), has the ability to control her burly instrument and produce a satisfying whole. Certainly her volume level was more than sufficient (Salonen kept his troops at a steady mezzo piano when directly accompanying) and her sense of emotional distance and discretion a valid if not transcendental approach. The orchestra was once again superb, emoting in its own solo passages perhaps just a tad more than the soprano. Even in Mr. Lutoslawski’s derivative and superficial effort, the instrumental forces were first rate, difficult passagework in the brass especially impressive.

Saving the best for last, Salonen really deeply explored the intensity of the La Valse score. Here we have the horrors of war, as seen by the sensitive ambulance attendant, inexorably swallowing the trappings of civilization, leaving in the end only anger, brutality and raveling. The piece seemed especially relevant in this first week of kulturkampf (Lincoln Center is now hunkered down with most entrances closed, added security and a mandatory bag check) and was realized masterfully, the difficult balances preserved even as the orchestra was allowed to let loose in a rather elastic manner. Perhaps Mr. Salonen’s secret is a confidence that allows his players to breathe freely whilst still under his strict control. Whatever the formula, he has applied it exceptionally well. For 20th century music, this is the band of choice.

The crowd was so enthusiastic throughout that it was rewarded with an encore, rare for an American orchestra, but not for a Finnish conductor. Pelleas et Melisande of Sibelius afforded an opportunity for the L.A. strings to really shine. Next season, they move into their new home (Salonen has chosen Haydn’s ”Farewell” Symphony as the last work at Chandler) and I, for one, expect great things. This afternoon may have concentrated on conclusions, but next year should herald a joyous new beginning.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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