Music review: Pietari Inkinen makes his Hollywood Bowl debut with Leon Fleisher as soloist


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Pietari Inkinen, who made his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, is 29, music director of the New Zealand Symphony and yet another success story for Finland’s fabulous music education. Here we go again, you might think. Well, yes and no.

While impressive, and while Inkinen’s program contained three works in which Esa-Pekka Salonen had excelled as music director of the orchestra, Inkinen hardly brought to mind the L.A. Philharmonic’s progressive conductor laureate. Actually, he reminded me of a different previous music director -- Zubin Mehta -- when he was young and cocky.


One knew from the moment that Inkinen walked on stage he didn’t lack confidence. Instead of the traditional white jacket for outdoor summer concerts, he sported a long white coat with a black T-shirt. Fashion statements are rare at classical Bowl concerts, onstage or off. When they occur, they are noticed.

Inkinen began with a jolt. Few have conducted ‘Finlandia’ in these parts since 1992, the year Salonen began his 17-year music directorship. The bombast was back in Sibelius’ famed hymn to his fatherland. Inkinen, who also happens to be an accomplished violinist and the leader of the Inkinen Trio, gets a bold, even thrilling, orchestral sound -- richly dug-in strings, blazing brass, no-nonsense woodwinds, sharp-edged percussion. He’s mastered the Mehta trick of sharply slicing chords as if with a saber. This was a patriotic ‘Finlandia,’ fine for enlisting soldiers to battle. There were no surprises.

Ravel’s mysterious Piano Concerto for the Left Hand followed, with Leon Fleisher as soloist. This time there were surprises. Inkinen and Fleisher made an odd couple, at odds with each other and each, in his own way, at odds with Ravel, as well.

Himself an assured, commanding pianist in his youth, Fleisher, who is 82, spent the bulk of his career with a right hand disabled by focal distonia. A revered educator and much admired for his late, purposeful style, in which are seen spiritual overtones, he does now play with both hands. But the left-hand repertory is still his specialty.

Fleisher over the years probably has played this Ravel concerto -- the best known of those for the left hand (several were commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right hand fighting for the Austrian army in World War I) -- as many times as anyone. Even so, he tackled it with great deliberation Tuesday. His fashion statement, by the way, was an elegant white Chinese top.
Arresting and otherworldly, the concerto (one of Ravel’s most amazing scores) begins almost inaudibly in the lower orchestra and has a jazzy but still dark center. It finishes with an introspective cadenza for the soloists and a powerfully dramatic coda for the orchestra, a kind of angry ‘Bolero’ without the bluster.

Fleisher’s playing was ever moody. What some hear as probing profound depths in his reflective pianism sometimes sounds to me like simple hesitation. Even the jazz interludes were gloomy here. But his tone has always been glorious and the amplification picked that up nicely.


On the other hand, so to speak, Inkinen proved an impatient accompanist. He waited on Fleisher but pressed forward whenever possible, jazzing up what he could and resolutely avoiding enigmatic Ravelian atmosphere.

With Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony after intermission, Inkinen may have thought to steal the thunder and fireworks from this weekend’s upcoming ‘Tchaikovsky Spectacular’ at the Bowl, which the more genial Bramwell Tovey will conduct. That remains to be seen, of course, but I would have liked to have seen the two conductors change places.

This Fourth was full of show. Inkinen conducted sectionally, which meant that little chunks of the four movements were self-contained, not especially expressive but very well executed and sounding good on their own. Inkinen’s command of details and of the orchestra was never for a second in question. He kept a tight control over Tchaikovsky’s emotions. He generated excitement the old-fashioned way. Nearly every crescendo was also an accelerando and vice-versa. The final measures were a stirring race to the finish.

Given the Bowl’s cramped rehearsal schedule, Inkinen accomplished much in little time. He put his swaggering stamp on the L.A. Philharmonic and on the music. His technique and young-man’s audacity will take him places. Music maturity may someday take him further.
-- Mark Swed

[update: An earlier verison of this review said that Paul Wittgenstein lost his right hand in World War II. In fact it was World War I.]


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