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MUSIC REVIEW : Jarvi, Norman Close Philharmonic Season

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Times Music Writer

A fortnight of agitation ends this weekend for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which closes its 25th Music Center season Sunday afternoon.

The precipitous resignation 11 days ago of music director Andre Previn, followed a few days later by his withdrawing from these final concerts of the winter season, and subsequent announcements of administrative changes in the Philharmonic organization, have made this a time of flux. A sense of disturbance and ambivalence hangs in the air.

Still, life goes on, sometimes in a pedestrian fashion.

Thursday night, at the first of the three concerts drawing this year in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to a close, guest conductor Neeme Jarvi led a mixed bag of performances.

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It began with a novelty by Arvo Part; crested, for some members of the audience, on Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs in a showy but superficial run-through by soprano Jessye Norman; and concluded with Sibelius’ Second Symphony.

Jarvi, who first visited here four years ago this spring, seems to remain a respectable if unexciting podium personality.

The Estonian conductor’s beat is clear, his sense of pacing admirable, his professionalism unquestioned. What he failed to elicit from the cooperative Philharmonic was strong convictions and compelling readings. Nevertheless, he did produce eminently viable, if not colorful, performances.

Sibelius’ popular Second Symphony moved logically through its familiar progression of contrasting moods, the orchestra playing carefully, Jarvi falling just short of that energetic push that might have made the whole project seem inevitable.

At the other end of the evening, Jarvi’s advocacy of Part’s simple-minded but potentially urgent “Fratres,” In Memory of Eduard Tubin, failed to make a positive impression. A nine-minute dirge for strings, bass drum, and claves, it seems merely to unwind and fall flat. During its short life, the listener is tempted to wonder: Is this minimalism, or just a lack of ideas?

In Jessye Norman’s glamorous appearances--Thursday, she wore a billowing, neon-blue gown that aggressively distracted the eye--the lack of ideas is not always apparent. Norman remains the Ronald Reagan of contemporary singers: beloved by some, suspected by others, wonderful in her perceived comprehensiveness, disappointing in the long haul.

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She behaves like a diva--whatever that means in an era when genuine prime donne never resemble each other--but does not always deliver the goods. Her vocalism can be resplendent or unresonant, her shading of texts perfectly on target or frustratingly vague.

In the Four Last Songs, her generalized readings seldom found that poetic thread that can make this work so poignant; at the same time, the voice moved disturbingly in and out of focus. Some gorgeous phrases--as in “Und die Seele unbewacht” in the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen”--boomed out as if through a megaphone. Others fell flat and became virtually lost in the orchestral murk. At the end, our handkerchiefs went unused.

Jarvi and the Philharmonic contributed efficient but innocuous and uninspired collaboration.

Hope springs. Pierre Boulez will be here in a week.

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