Times Music Writer

A brand-new and impressive guitar concerto, a new, solid and promising guest conductor, and return appearances by the glamorous Labeque Sisters and guitarist John McLaughlin: The first pops program of the 1985-86 Los Angeles Philharmonic season offered special attractions.

A nonsubscription concert, it took place Wednesday night indoors in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, with an agenda built around Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals,” and ending with the world premiere of John McLaughlin’s Guitar Concerto, subtitled “Mediterranean.”

To be repeated tonight, this intriguing program, though offering color and glamour in appearances by duo-pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque and actress Cicely Tyson (in the Saint-Saens’ fantasy), actually focuses on the new concerto, the first concerto, that is, written by jazz-fusion guitarist McLaughlin.

It is a long and attractive piece, in size Brucknerian (by Rodrigan standards), in impact pleasing. Forty-two minutes in length, it sprawls purposefully through constant changes of mood and pace. Its core is an 18-minute slow movement with enough variety to be lifted whole out of its context and used thus by some enterprising soloist.


Spanish in influence, the new work (commissioned by the Philharmonic for this occasion) seems built from eclectic harmonic materials, but cannily, and with a consistent sense of direction. Melodies it has--in the central Lento, perhaps even more tunes than it needs--some of them hummable.

And virtuoso display it also has, most of it handsomely integrated with musical statement (though there is one arid patch, near the close of the slow movement), all of it delivered easily and with almost nonchalant speed by the composer himself.

As orchestrated by Michael Gibbs, the piece may not need the services of a symphonic body as large as the Philharmonic, though, with the obvious boost of microphones at this premiere performance, the sounds produced by soloist McLaughlin never became lost in the orchestral fabric. Indeed, in a smaller hall, and with a smaller ensemble, miking may not be required at all.

Under the guidance of Jan-Latham Koenig, a young British conductor making his local debut, this premiere went smoothly. The Philharmonic cooperated in every wise, most neatly in solo contributions from two of its principals, concertmaster Sidney Weiss and cellist Ronald Leonard.


The rest of this event also pleased. Koenig, who was born in 1953, showed authority, wit and style-consciousness in a jolly revival of a suite from Poulenc’s “Les Biches.” Then, with Tyson reading the now-dated, still amusing, verses of Ogden Nash, he presided over a charming reading of Saint-Saens’ zoological fantasy.

If the Labeque sisters wasted extramusical efforts gazing at Tyson and clowning around--as in the “Pianists” movement--they still gave efficient readings of these vignettes, readings marred only by harsh tone and a lack of projected character. Dressed in what appeared to be satin harem-suits, the French musicians looked more fascinating than they sounded.

Earlier, the duo-pianists performed, alone on the Pavilion stage, excerpts from Bizet’s suite for piano, four-hands, “Jeux d’enfants,” delivering its musical content intelligently, but failing to modulate tone and dynamics toward a completely satisfying, colorful whole.