One-composer programs can be a problem, particularly when the composer is as insistently somber and relentlessly personal as Jean Sibelius.
But the assortment of three major Sibelius compositions played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday, under the direction of Paavo Berglund, met with cordial popular approval; the audience listened intently, the conducting was impressive, the playing was earnest and the occasion introduced a 26-year-old violinist who seems headed for big rewards.
Joseph Swensen, New York-born of Norwegian-Japanese descent, is a handsome young man who plays fiddle by the grace of God and superior training (Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard). He is musically sensitive and alert beyond his years, and he communicates directly and intensely. His tone is unforced velvet, his technique fluently flawless. On Thursday, he plumbed the subtleties of Sibelius’ Concerto with limitless poise and persuasive eloquence.
The audience embraced him with floods of applause. Not for quite a time have the orchestra musicians been seen to welcome a newcomer so heartily.
Berglund selected the first and last of Sibelius’ seven symphonies, a choice that emphasized the composer’s progress from an obviously effective symphonist to a path-breaker of monumental originality.
The conductor went about his business competently and convincingly, neither didactically nor impersonally, always relinquishing center stage to the composer rather than to the performer.
There was a lot of excess noise and roughness in the First Symphony; Berglund did not strive for the lushness and dark atmosphere that mark such notable Sibelius exponents as Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
But he sustained the compact, intricate canvas of the one-movement Symphony No. 7--originally designated by the composer as “Fantasia Sinfonico"--with a powerful sense of direction and a dramatic urge all the stronger for its restraint.
Time eventually may decide that the Seventh is Sibelius’ definitive masterpiece. This performance suggested that possibility.