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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Charles Dutoit, conductor
Stravinsky: Symphonies for Wind Instruments;ebussy: La Mer
Prokofiev: Suite from Romeo and Juliet
Friday, February 24, 2012 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Tomorrow at 8 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

Los Angeles Philharmonic management earns a gold star for its scheduling prowess this week. After a grueling, month-long traversal of Gustav Mahler’s 9.5 symphonies twice, including a trip to and from Caracas, Venezuela, the Phil returned home Sunday and got right back into playing at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is taking a four-week hiatus from conducting, presumably getting some rest and reacquainted with his wife and baby son, but for the orchestra members, there are two more weeks of concerts before taking a one-week vacation.

A 10-week-run of guest conductors began this week not with a young tyro (that happens next week when 34-year-old Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado returns to Disney Hall) but with a welcome veteran presence: Charles Dutoit, who is about as far away from Dudamel and Heras-Casado as one could imagine.

Now age 75 (although he doesn’t look it), Dutoit is tall and slender, with a quizzical, patrician look as he calmly strolled on stage this morning to lead a program a long ways removed from Mahler. Unlike Dudamel (who conducts nearly everything from memory), Dutoit used a score for all three works. He reordered Dudamel’s seating pattern, placing the cellos on his far right with the basses next to them and the violas in the middle. Following performances, he took bows with an ironic grin from in front of or beside the conductor’s podium rather than from deep within the orchestra, as does Dudamel.

Dudamel is currently finishing up his four-year tenure as chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and for 25 years he was artistic director of the Montreal Symphony (although that sojourn ended in acrimony). Nonetheless, Dutoit is a welcome annual guest-conducting presence on the podium in Los Angeles, not least because he gets excellent results from the LAPO, this week on even shorter rehearsal time than normal.

That was evident again this morning, beginning with Stravinsky’s quirky Symphonies for Wind Instruments, which opened the program. In his book, An Autobiography, Stravinsky said. “[Symphonies for Wind Instruments] is not meant ‘to please’ an audience or rouse its passions.” To these ears, his assessment was correct; the nine-minute work juxtaposes angular, rhythmic measures with sonorous chords, but while the orchestra (in this case, the term “wind instruments” included the brass section) played the piece with dispatch, the work served as no more than an introduction to the balance of the program.

Dutoit, who was born in Lausanne, Switzerland (the French quadrant of the country, has always had an affinity for French music and it was on full display with today’s performance of Debussy’s La Mer. If the Stravinsky was a symphony in name only, La Mer is the closest Debussy came to writing a symphony. Written in 1903-1905 (the same time Mahler was composing his sixth and seventh symphonies), La Mer is eons away Mahler, being instead an impressionistic work inspired by the sea.

Dutoit led the work with just the right amount of tension and sweep and the orchestra responded to his every gesture. As is usual, Dutoit got the strings to play with a lean, clean sound and the brass maintained the mellow power it displayed during the Mahler performances. The surging sea was ever-present in the 25-minute performance.

After intermission, Dutoit turned to a suite of eight selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. The orchestra seemed to catch fire in this 45-minute performance, playing with razor-sharp precision when called for and with elegant sweep the rest of the time. The entire performance was exhilarating. Along the way, David Buck, flute; Michelle Zukovsky, clarinet; Ben Hong, cello; and James Rotter on saxophone delivered polished solos.

• Although Thursday night’s concert was dedicated to Co-Principal Clarinet Lorin Levee, who died Wednesday at the age of 61 after battling a blood disorder, there was no mention this morning of the man who held the LAPO principal position from 1981 (Michelle Zukovsky remains as the orchestra’s other principal clarinet). Levee played his last concert with the Phil on Jan. 8 but didn’t participate in “The Mahler Project.” A Los Angeles Times article on Levee is HERE.

• Heras-Casado, who last December was named principal conductor of New York City’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s, returns to the Phil next weekend leading Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and the west coast premiere of James Matheson’s Violin Concerto, with LAPO Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour as soloist. Friday is a “Casual Friday” concert; the Saturday and Sunday performances add Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Information: www.laphil.com

(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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