MUSIC REVIEW - Kurt Sanderling Brings Tradition of Old World to the Philharmonic


There are many Los Angeles Philharmonmics these days.

There is the blank, eminently professional ensemble that cranks out concert after concert for a numbing variety of hastily departing guest conductors at Hollywood Bowl. There is the neat and efficient orchestra that gives its dutiful best, even in lackluster repertory, for Andre Previn. There is the super-precise community of musicians that responds so alertly to the baton--or is it a scalpel?--of Pierre Boulez. There is the heartily generous Philharmonic that produces fastidiously exciting sounds at the urging of Simon Rattle.

We cannot be quite sure what sort of a Philharmonic will emerge when Esa-Pekka Salonen finally comes to town and takes over. In the meantime, those who value warm, spacious, sensitive music-making that springs from a nearly extinct Old-World tradition can take comfort in the continuing visits of Kurt Sanderling.

His, admittedly, is a strange case. German born and trained, he sidelined what might have become an international career when he emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1936. In 1960, he became a semi-secret weapon of the East German regime, focusing his activities on the inaccessible side of Berlin and in distant Dresden.

During the 1970s, he began to travel better-beaten paths. London has seen a lot of him. He has served as guest conductor with several American orchestras, most notably San Francisco and New York. Now 77, he earns decent respect wherever he goes, but in this age of monstrous egos and quirky personality cults, he is hardly considered a superstar.

Nevertheless, he has commanded--and deserved--all-out reverence in Los Angeles since 1984. There must be something special, and something elusive, in the chemistry between this pensive, no-nonsense maestro and the collection of receptive, versatile players at his command here.

Audiences and musicians in other centers regard Sanderling as a solid practitioner of his craft. Southern Californians cherish him, with good reason, as the most enlightened exponent of the mellow Germanic tradition to regularly grace our podium since the golden days of Bruno Walter. He belongs to an endangered species.

Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he opened the concert with a festive yet fervent performance of Mozart's "Zauberflote" overture, the hints of charm counterbalanced by muscular solemnity. After intermission, he presided over a monumental reading of Beethoven's "Eroica."

It began with agitation that took the Allegro con brio marking quite literally, slowed for a profoundly moving funeral march, flexed muscles without compromising grace in the Scherzo, and capped the closing passages of the final Allegro with a daring ritard--a liberty that added romantic majesty to the inherent heroism. Under his gentle urgings, the Philharmonic mustered the breadth, the unanimity of phrasing, the dynamic flexibility, the balance of choirs and delicacy of nuance that identify a great orchestra.

In the centerpiece of the program, Haydn's C-major Cello Concerto, Sanderling enforced poise and intimacy as a frame of reference for the solo exertions of Ronald Leonard. The principal cellist of the orchestra played with passionate fluency, commanding bravura and lean, elegant tone, all of which made the nearly inevitable pitch problems seem nearly irrelevant.

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