This week's concert by Andre Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion would have been intriguing under the best of circumstances.
The program opened with the West Coast premiere of a major work by John Harbison, continued with the poignant flourishes of Prokofiev's much neglected Piano Concerto for the left hand and ended with the climactic heroism cum mysticism of Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra."
It was a difficult program, the sort that could strain even a conductor of Previn's experience and versatility. Unfortunately, our music director fell victim to a severe bronchial infection 48 hours before the opening, and--for most of the evening, at least--his baton passed by default to the orchestra's 26-year-old assistant conductor, David Alan Miller.
The event bore the markings of the classical star-is-born story. Leonard Bernstein laid his claim on posterity in a similar situation when, at 25, he saved the day for the New York Philharmonic replacing an ailing Bruno Walter. The young Michael Tilson Thomas managed a comparable breakthrough when he took over a Boston Symphony concert at the last minute for William Steinberg.
It may be premature to claim that Miller will follow in these illustrious footsteps. Fame is even more fickle than fate. His job on Thursday was made somewhat easier, moreover, by the presence of Harbison, who proved willing and able to conduct his own thorny music.
Still, the Prokofiev and Strauss pose formidable challenges, and the relative novice--his previous Philharmonic exposures had been confined to youth concerts and minor Bowl events--rose to those challenges with poise and promise.
The Prokofiev concerto of 1931--which, believe it or not, the Philharmonic was venturing for the first time--brims with quirky charm, gnarled pathos, piquant grotesquery and wispy lyricism. Undaunted by its complexities, Miller managed to sustain delicate balances, rhythmic propulsion and a fine control of the generously scaled, essentially mercurial rhetoric.
In the process, he provided a sensitive
orchestral framework for the solo performance of Leon Fleisher, an elegant demonstration of jaunty bravura and understated pathos. This pianist still conveys more artful passion with one finger than most others can with 10.
Miller's big moment came, of course, with the Strauss tone poem. A member of the "Star Wars" generation, he approached the grandiose score with frantic impetuosity. Thus shouted Zarathustra.
Miller constantly stressed speed, tension and visceral excitement, sometimes at the expense of subtlety and majesty. There were moments when the inner voices got scrambled, passages where the primitive affect was allowed to blur the inherent pathos.
No matter. There will be time for relaxation, for introspection and expansion later. He proved on this occasion that he commands a flashy temperament, a solid technique and strong nerves. These are compelling basic virtues.
Harbison's "Diotima" harks back to the time--1976, to be precise--when it was almost daring for a young composer to give vent to anything akin to a Romantic sensibility.
Inspired, in an admittedly abstract way, by a poem of Friedrich Holderlin, Harbison traces long, fascinatingly convoluted melodic detours. He explores a broad vista of symphonic color, introduces enough harmonic spice to confirm a still-modern perspective, creates an abiding aura of calm that makes the ultimate storm cataclysmic in the best theatrical sense.
In 20 compact, eloquent minutes, Harbison proves himself an inspired craftsman and a master of aesthetic drama. We should hear "Diotima" again soon.
And we should hear it, preferably, with a really forceful interpreter on the podium. As a conductor, Harbison could serve the composer with obvious dedication but only modest competence.