By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
4:47 PM PST, February 14, 2014
Last spring, Lionel Bringuier made an affectionate departure from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, dancing off into the world with a charmingly buoyant performance of Ravel's "La Valse."
The French conductor had arrived in L.A. in 2007 as a 20-year-old assistant to Esa-Pekka Salonen, stayed on working with Gustavo Dudamel, and rose to resident conductor, a favorite of the orchestra and the audience alike.
This fall Bringuier begins his first major appointment as a music director, with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zürich. Thursday night he returned to Walt Disney Concert Hall as, for the first time, a guest conductor, the L.A. Phil one of an assortment of A-list orchestras on his dance card.
Bringuier's changed a bit, lost a little of his boyish presence, grown in stature in the year away. Perhaps reflecting his man-about-the-orchestral world status, his program was slightly more mainstream than usual. He has a flair for exploring neglected French repertory. This time he served a Vienna sandwich, composed of favorite Brahms and Beethoven outer layers and early 20th century songs by Alban Berg in the center. The music was youthful. So were the marvelous performances.
There was also a continuity with his "La Valse" last year, since with Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Berg's Seven Early Songs, Bringuier basically picked up where he had left off last year: Ravel's "La Valse" is a French composer's colorful postmortem on delirious but dying Viennese voluptuousness.
Brahms' set of variations on what he thought was a theme by Haydn (later musicology discovered the melody's roots in an old chant) are homage to the composer who set the stage for the classical style and paved the way for Vienna becoming the epicenter of classical music. Brahms thickens the classical stew with rich harmonies, orchestral colors that blend rather than stand out and rhythms that sneakily undercut regularity.
Bringuier's approach was classic French Brahms in the sense of Françoise Sagan's 1959 bestselling novel "Aimez-vous Brahms?," about a middle-aged woman and her young lover (which Hollywood inelegantly renamed "Goodbye Again" when turning it into a film). Rather than looking for heavy substance, the conductor chose seduction by dancing over the variations, quickly, elegantly and with unfailing grace.
Berg's Seven Early Songs, fervently sung by soprano Camilla Tilling, are the music of Vienna on the cusp of late, increasingly decadent Romanticism — the kind Ravel marveled in — shortly before World War I. Berg was in his early 20s and under the spell of early Strauss, early Schoenberg and sexually charged poetry.
There is, in nearly every moment, an attempt at rapture in the vocal lines, while the orchestral accompaniments are busily intricate and messily colorful. Egon Schiele's canvases come to mind, but Bringuier avoided the potential for distortion by bringing out Bergian sweep while keeping the orchestra in check to let Tilling's strong soprano soar.
Beethoven wrote his Fourth Symphony when he was in his 30s and beginning to understand the implications of his extraordinary musical powers. His was a Vienna ripe for conquering, and his Fourth, especially in Bringuier's hands, is a symphony of exuberance.
For all the natural refinement and polish of his performances, Bringuier is still a young man who enthuses in riotous sounds. He likes a good loud thump now and then. He also likes his Beethoven big and symphonically in-your-face with crunchy instrumental textures, blasts of brass and an excellent timpani workout.
But there was also a suavity to the performance, particularly in the slow movement. Beethoven was music's greatest trickster.
With a little melodic flick, he could turn nothing more than the downward-scale passage that opens the movement into sweet, surprising song.
By smoothing out wrinkles, Bringuier then turned that sweetness into near-Bergian rapture. The winds acted like instruments of wonder as a solo clarinet line, say, blended into a flute phrase with utter poise. The L.A. Phil, all night, made everything sound easy.
Aimez-vous Beethoven? Bringuier's is fresh, colorful, spirited, true and youthful. The crowd, this night, was younger than normal too. All excellent signs.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A.
When: 8 p.m Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Info: (323) 850-2000 or laphil.org
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