After a long absence, the veteran Spanish conductor Jesús López-Cobos returned to the
López-Cobos, who will be 76 in February, was a familiar guest with the Phil in the 1980s; he even made some recordings here, including a pleasing, if now obscure, one of Karl Goldmark's "Rustic Wedding" Symphony.
He is best-known for his 15 years at the Cincinnati Symphony (1986-2001), where a long string of sumptuously-recorded Telarc CDs reveals a suave, polished sound building on the orchestra's strong Germanic tradition. Not surprisingly, López-Cobos drew a well-fed, sometimes brass-heavy sound from the Philharmonic, with much of the programming planted in a comfort zone right in the middle of Central Europe.
But first, López-Cobos brought out something refreshingly unusual. It was a quirky, dramatic, energizing tone poem by his old composition teacher Cristóbal Halffter with the unwieldy title "Tiento del primer tono y batalla imperial." It was a West Coast premiere and probably the first time the Phil had ever played anything by this composer.
The piece starts out innocuously enough, with a dignified yet touching string orchestration of a keyboard piece by 16th century composer Antonio de Cabezón. Then the winds and brass gradually destabilize the harmonies and suddenly the whole thing blows up in a riot of aleatoric strings. The huge orchestra roars with noise, followed by battle cries from the horns and trumpets, and the piece ends with a thumping, militant coda. Yet there was economy in the drama; Halffter needed only 10½ minutes to cover all of this ground. Most of all, it was a lot of fun.
From there, the concert settled into the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, where López-Cobos and pianist
In their onstage talk after the concert, Ohlsson and López-Cobos gave a plausible explanation for the tempos — that they were stretching them out more to take advantage of the lively, lingering Disney Hall acoustics. Be that as it may, I still thought the first two movements drifted tediously, though Ohlsson took the third movement at a more reasonably bracing speed.
More standard repertoire awaited after the break. Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 featured solid running rhythms, gracefully shaped turns of the phrase, and some nice touches like when López-Cobos lingered a bit around the mysterious center of the second movement to produce a foreboding quality amidst the nature scenes.
Los Angeles Philharmonic with conductor Jesus López-Cobos
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 2 p.m. Sunday