Music review: Vasily Petrenko conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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It’s tempting to call conductor Vasily Petrenko “the tall Russian dude.” At 33, he’s four years older than Gustavo Dudamel, who turned 29 last week, but he shares a similarly vital, elemental approach to music. In his astonishing Walt Disney Concert Hall debut Friday morning with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Petrenko made a deeply felt, unforgettable impression in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Piotr Anderszewski, and in Tchaikovsky’s great “Manfred” Symphony.

As principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic since 2005, Petrenko has been revitalizing the musical life of that city, the fourth largest in Britain. Subscriptions are up, and Scousers have embraced him and his family. Last year, his contract with the orchestra was extended to 2015.


Petrenko’s passionate temperament is harnessed to a rigorous structural sense -- one of his teachers was Esa-Pekka Salonen -- and that served him especially well in Tchaikovsky’s potentially sprawling, nearly one-hour symphonic narrative. “Manfred,” inspired by Lord Byron’s celebrated drama, stands as one of Tchaikovsky’s most imaginative and beautifully brooding creations. And Petrenko did it full justice by maintaining dramatic tension throughout, never allowing the composer’s inspired evocations of the restless, tormented hero to descend into bathos. There was charm in Manfred’s melancholy, and the supernatural elements in the score -- including the scherzo’s vision of an Alpine fairy appearing in a waterfall’s rainbow -- created audible delight in the near-capacity audience.

The Philharmonic managed the music’s almost bipolar mood swings seamlessly. Every transition felt natural as one gorgeous melody after another unfolded. In less inspired hands, the work’s longish finale can be a problem. Tchaikovsky inserted a fugue that can be a stodgy drag, but Petrenko sustained momentum, building to Manfred’s apotheosis, conjuring another surprise when the Disney Hall organ kicked in. Some critics have said it’s too much; here it sounded spine-chillingly right.

The concert began with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, in which the 40-year-old Anderszewski proved an inspired soloist. It was a subtle, remarkably detailed performance of an endlessly inventive and high-energy concerto. Petrenko and Anderszewski (pronounced “Ander-SHEV-ski”), who is of Polish-Hungarian parentage, caught the piece’s rushing ebb and flow, its rhythmic delicacy and snap, with breathtaking command. The rambunctious country dance finale sparkled. If this is what Anderszewski -- once a student at USC’s Thornton School and, later, of Murray Perahia’s -- can do in the morning, one wonders what his next evening and afternoon performances will be like.

-- Rick Schultz

Los Angeles Philharmonic. 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.