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Finally, L.A. Phil and Mozart are a good match

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I grew up listening to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which may help explain why I had to learn to love Mozart. That happened when I went away to college and, studying the scores, discovered how much I had been missing, how much Mozartean magic had simply become mystery, from dutiful performances at the dull Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Happily, times have — however slowly or surprisingly — changed.

May at Walt Disney Concert Hall was a month for stay-at-home Mozarteans. By the final of four performances of "The Marriage of Figaro," the L.A. Philharmonic, for the first time in my experience, became a true Mozart band.

Mozart had a genius for letting one phrase lead to another in ways that seem obvious only in retrospect, not unlike the way nature can work. His materials and musical language were commonplace; his procedures were not. When one instrument often finishes another's thought in "Figaro," this wisest of operas, instrumental lines become the embodiment of singers' uncertain emotions.

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At the L.A. Phil's inspired last performance of "Figaro," players read Mozart's score and followed the conductor, but they sounded as though they were reacting from instinct.

Much has been expected from Gustavo Dudamel, but not this, at least not yet. The great German Mozart conductor Bruno Walter liked to say that only children or musicians over 50 should tackle Mozart. Dudamel is an inconvenient 32.

Angelenos are not without a Mozart tradition, however spotty. The L.A. Phil had, with Otto Klemperer, an eminent Mozartean as music director in its distant past. But the little recorded evidence we have isn't impressive. A 1938 New Year's Day broadcast of Klemperer conducting Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony sounds labored to modern ears, despite a certain urgency.

Walter himself had a close relationship with the L.A. Phil. His last recording, made in 1961, the year before he died, was of Mozart overtures with the Columbia Symphony, which consisted of mostly L.A. members along with a handful of studio musicians. He gave creamy, dreamy, sweet-and-sourness to Mozart's "Figaro" Overture. But that has nothing of the terrible intensity an angry 61-year-old Walter brought to the opera at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, a year before the Nazis annexed Austria and Walter fled to the United States. A recording of the full performance can be found on YouTube.

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Klemperer and Walter were but two of numerous West Coast émigré musicians steeped in Mozart. Many more could be found working at the film studios or teaching at local colleges. Schoenberg, for instance, felt it more important for his students to analyze Mozart than learn Schoenberg's own 12-tone music. Much later in 1978, a British Mozartean, Neville Marriner, founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, an ideal Mozart ensemble then and now.

So if the L.A. Phil has little reputation for Mozart, it must have its reasons. Until Disney Hall was built, the ensemble never had proper venues. The old Philharmonic Auditorium, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and, worst of all, the Hollywood Bowl lacked necessary acoustical intimacy for Mozart and required a thickly symphonic approach to music that requires sonic translucence.

Mainly, though, the L.A. Phil was a modern orchestra in the making and Mozart was not thought modern. Take the most progressive North American artists of the '60s. Leonard Bernstein's Mozart was incautious; Glenn Gould's was proudly perverse; the Juilliard Quartet's too volatile; Maria Callas pretty much avoided the composer.

Zubin Mehta, 27 and still fresh from studying in Mozart's Vienna, was the first L.A. Phil music director to directly address the Mozart problem. He insisted, upon his arrival here in 1962, that working on Mozartean finesse was a fine way to fine-tune the ensemble. But he was inexperienced. Only after moving to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich much later did he bloom into a considered Mozartean.

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Carlo Maria Giulini also began his tenure as L.A. Phil music director by talking up Mozart, and at 64, he did not lack maturity. He had made splendid Mozart opera recordings before coming to L.A. in 1978. By this time, however, his succulent sound was better suited for Brahms.

Next up in 1985 was André Previn, an eloquent Mozartean. He too wanted to make the L.A. Phil much more Mozart friendly. And the time was right. Released a year earlier, the film biography "Amadeus" had launched a populist Mozart boom.

Had the chemistry been right, had Previn not fallen out of favor with the Philharmonic management and some players as quickly as he did, had Previn's sophisticated but understated chamber-music approach to Mozart not have been too understated for the Chandler's muffled sound, he might have achieved something remarkable on the Mozart front. He led convincing Mozart piano concerto performances from the keyboard, but he was unable in four brief and unsteady years here to make major Mozartean changes.

Mozart was never front and center for Esa-Pekka Salonen, although the Finnish modernist proved a capable enough accompanist in Mozart concerto performances and could bring focus and fire to Mozart's great C-Minor Mass. But by significantly upping the ante with modern music when he was the L.A. Phil's music director, Salonen created a far more flexible ensemble. Ironically, that helped make it better suited to Mozart as well.

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Equally important, Salonen oversaw the move to Disney Hall, where ensemble subtleties immediately registered. Suddenly Mozart could matter.

When Dudamel took over in 2009, that first hearkened a return to old-school symphonic Mozart, the young conductor having been schooled in his native Venezuela in the El Sistema approach of monster orchestras. He generated, for instance, tremendous vitality in a performance of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony his first season, but with a heavy hand.

A heavier hand still was applied to "Don Giovanni" last season. Frank Gehry designed oversized crumpled paper sculptures for the set, and they were a pleasure to look at and provided a striking playing field for the singers, but they necessitated placing the orchestra on high and behind the stage. Dudamel compensated by pushing the sound, although he might have done that anyway.

"Don Giovanni" is Mozart with the most orchestral heft, and Dudamel does nothing by halves. There was a marvelous strength to the music making, and a few touches of humor, but nothing in it quite prepared one for the more magically airy marvels of Dudamel's "Figaro" a year later.

For this production, French architect Jean Nouvel designed an overpowering set that was startling on first acquaintance but, on second visit, I found starting to become oppressive. But the L.A. Phil learned important lessons from the "Don Giovanni" experiment and moved the orchestra to the front of the stage. The cast was inspired, and with the orchestra and singers in close contact, a level of interaction occurred that is rare in opera. Dudamel here led and was also willing to be led.

This effortlessly seeming fluidity was what I heard for the first time in the L.A. Phil's Mozart. The day after the final "Figaro," Dudamel conducted Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for winds and orchestra, and the heavenly performance felt as though it had simply flowed directly from "Figaro."

Once Dudamel left town the orchestra finished up the final week of its season with an all-Mozart chamber music program and a weird Mozart sandwich, in which Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena squeezed Mozart's Symphony No. 40 between Brahms' Third Symphony and three Brahms Hungarian Dances. It was as though the Mozart had been assigned a center seat in coach between two heavy-set passengers.

The chamber music and the symphony were respectably performed. Mena got Brahms to dance the flamenco. But "Figaro" began to feel a distant dream.

Mozart, thus, remains inherently elusive for our orchestra, as the composer does for many of today's orchestras (which may contribute to the music's allure). But Dudamel has at least proven an L.A. Phil capable of a new level of Mozartean enchantment. Next year comes "Così fan Tutte." Anything can, and probably will, happen.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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