Music review: Charles Dutoit with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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The words ‘Charles Dutoit’ have not always been paired with “well-liked.” But it does not pay, in the prickly orchestra world, to jump to conclusions. The 73-year-old conductor led an irresistibly vibrant concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night. What was not to like?

Dutoit has had his problems. Although he turned the Montreal Symphony into a recording star, his quarter-century music directorship ultimately turned sour. In 2002, he abruptly resigned as music director when orchestra players publicly accused him of abusive behavior. [For the record: An earlier version of this review said Dutoit had spent a half century with the Montreal Symphony.]

Not all the musicians hated him, however. One member, the excellent Canadian violinist Chantal Juillet, just became Mrs. Dutoit this month. And now the troubled Philadelphia Orchestra, on the verge of bankruptcy, is lucky to have a disciplinarian like Dutoit as its current chief conductor, its one stabilizing force during a long and thus far fruitless search for a new music director.

Friday, Dutoit began with Alberto Ginastera’s “Variaciones Concertantes.” Perhaps it was one of his former wives, the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, who angled the Swiss conductor in the sassy direction of Argentina’s most important 20th-century classical composer (assuming you assign Astor Piazzolla’s New Tango to another category).


At the moment, Ginastera, who died in 1983, is best known for “Malambo” from his ballet “Estancia,” because Gustavo Dudamel has made it an encore favorite with this Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Harpists regularly play Ginastera’s concerto, but then they have little of quality to choose from.

Ginastera wrote in both modernist and nationalist styles. His “Variaciones Concertantes,” one of the few other Ginastera scores that finds their way onto the edges of the international standard repertory, begins with an expressive cello melody, accompanied by harp, that immediately evokes Buenos Aires on a sultry night. The tune is passed to other solo instruments in the course of the variations. Some are brilliant glosses. The viola and horn solos are rapt. An oboe and bassoon duet is poignant. The playing of Peter Stumpf (cello), Carrie Dennis (viola), Eric Overholt (horn), Ariana Ghez (oboe) and Shawn Mouser (bassoon) was memorable. The final variation is Ginastera of the lively dance. Dutoit made it sizzle. [For the record: An earlier version of this post misspelled Ariana Ghez’s first name as Arian.]

I hold out hopes for a Ginastera revival. Coincidentally, David Robertson conducted the dances from “Estancia” with the New York Philharmonic last weekend. There is much more. Ginastera wrote three terrific Spanish-language operas. The New York premiere of the first, “Don Rodrigo,” in 1966 made Plácido Domingo a star. The sexy second, “Bomarzo,” helped open the Kennedy Center and was a succés de scandale. Hello, Los Angeles Opera.

Also coincidentally, Dutoit in Los Angeles and Robertson in New York thought Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand a suitable companion for Ginastera. At Disney, the elegant young Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky was the soloist. His tone was robust and full, yet clean, and it caught the tint of this auburn-toned score just right.[For the record: An earlier version of this post misspelled Nikolai Lugansky ‘s first name as Nicolai.]

There can be something disorienting about a two-handed pianist playing with one arm (figuratively) tied behind his back. Commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm fighting with the Austrians in World War I, the solo part is intended to express a kind of rootless, off-center quality. Pianists with strong right arms can’t do that.

Lugansky sometimes balanced himself holding on to the edge of the piano with his right hand. That gave him solidity, but his lyricism and his bell-like timbre were not to be argued with. Dutoit appropriately emphasized distinctive dark colors and rhythmic focus.

Then in the complete ballet score to Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” Dutoit oversaw a full-scale, high-definition, 3-D sonic spectacular. Dancing to this “Petrushka” would have been out of the question. Nor could small puppets have survived the assault.

Rather Dutoit went in for knock-out effects and plenty of sparkle and shine. The L.A. Philharmonic, at home here, appeared delighted to oblige. Pianist Joanne Pearce Martin was the bearer of much engaging glitter.

Tuesday, a week after Dutoit tied the knot to Juillet, the L.A. Philharmonic announced that he will return in the fall to lead Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette.” That’s good news.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic: 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Walt Disney Concert Hall. Click here for information from the L.A. Phil website.