After last-minute cancellation, Emmanuel Villaume steps up to lead L.A. Phil

The music director of the Dallas Opera broke from a vacation in Malibu to fill in as L.A. Phil conductor

The Los Angeles Philharmonic concert Friday night was supposed to have been a return engagement for Vasily Petrenko, the Russian-born conductor who recently completed an outstanding recorded Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. But on Tuesday, the Philharmonic announced that Petrenko had to cancel and fly to St. Petersburg, Russia, for the funeral of his mother.

So up to the Walt Disney Concert Hall podium stepped French-born conductor Emmanuel Villaume, who just finished his second season as music director of the Dallas Opera and happened to be vacationing in Malibu when he got the call.

“We will make it fun anyway!” his Facebook posting said -- but not before some adjustments were made to the program.  

Richard Strauss’ magnificent ego trip “Ein Heldenleben” was scratched and in its place, Strauss’ earlier tone poems “Don Juan” and “Till Eulenspiegel” were inserted. Pianist Lise de la Salle and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 remained in place, and so did the unusual leadoff piece, Anton Webern’s “Im Sommerwind.”

Now hold on, don’t jump to conclusions. This is not the Webern of microscopic, rarified, knotty, atonal gems whose rigorous language ruled contemporary music for a few decades after World War II. Rather, this was what the 20-year-old Webern was writing in 1904 just before he met Arnold Schoenberg -- a lush, melodic, Strauss-drenched, post-Romantic tone poem for large orchestra, with a recurring motif that bears more than a passing resemblance to one from Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade.”

No one knew about “Im Sommerwind” until it was discovered among a bunch of manuscripts in 1961, and neither of the first two “complete” recordings of Webern’s music included it (although the third one did).  

Villaume and the L.A. Phil gave it a nicely atmospheric opening, pushed through the main body of the piece impulsively and revealed a few fleeting glimpses of the kaleidoscopic Webern of the future.

The Beethoven moved along conventionally with De la Salle (who will turn 27 on Friday) displaying a solid technique and, in the second movement, much poetic feeling. What I missed in the finale was a sharp wit; De la Salle played through the mini-cadenzas leading to the Rondo’s repeating theme in strict time, and some humor was lost.

“Don Juan” came out of the chute blazing and proceeded at comfortable tempos with melting solos from longtime L.A. Phil principal clarinetist Michele Zukovsky. “Till Eulenspiegel” was even better, infused with dynamism and a splendid march to the gallows, with principal horn Andrew Bain nailing the torturous solo motif near the opening that gets the piece rolling.

Villaume is tall, bald and extremely physical in his swaggering, shaking, highly animated gestures at times, reminding me a bit of Georg Solti as well as Villaume’s colleague at the Dallas Symphony, Jaap van Zweden. And by the time “Till Eulenspiegel” rolled around, the promised fun had taken hold.

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