When Gennady Rhozdestvensky last conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, back in the innocent days of 1977, he confirmed his rarefied position among the elite.
Here was an enlightened leader, unassuming in demeanor yet totally in command, who conquered every challenge with apparent ease. Rhozdestvensky had it all--technique, comprehension, style, a broad repertory and instant expressive warmth.
Without even seeming to try, he established a sympathetic rapport with our orchestra and its audience. We all looked forward to many happy returns.
Then came the latest cold war. The Soviet maestro could work in Vienna, in London and in Stockholm, but not in Los Angeles. The loss, of course, was ours.
Now, thanks to the wonder of a precarious perestroika , the deprivation has stopped. Rhozdestvensky returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center on Thursday.
His picture in the program magazine suggested that nothing had changed. Small wonder. It turned out to be the same photo used 13 years ago.
Actually, he did look a little different on the podium. His hair--what remains of it--is longer now, and grayer. At 58, he may have gained a pound or two.
Did I say he looked different on the podium? I take that back. Rhozdestvensky doesn’t stand on anything. He stands in front of the podium. He prefers to communicate with his players democratically, at eye level.
This isn’t just an eccentric mannerism. Intimate exchanges are important to this conductor. He doesn’t issue sweeping commands from on high.
He inflects the text, literally, with a smile or a blink or a suddenly up-raised chin. He sculpts economical phrases in the air, but only when he deems the process absolutely necessary.
He beats time modestly and offers minimal cues. Often, and for long stretches, he pays the orchestra the ultimate compliment of not conducting at all--just standing guard and listening.
Unlike his more picturesque colleagues, Rhozdestvensky doesn’t care to conduct the audience. He doesn’t proclaim his importance. He doesn’t concern himself with flamboyant choreography. He doesn’t deal in emotive punctuation. No matter how whomping or how delayed the musical climax, his feet never leave the floor.
The Philharmonic, unaccustomed to such subtle and benign urgings, did not always respond with maximum finesse. There were some loud and rough spots in Haydn’s Symphony No. 74, which opened the generous, eclectic program. There was some flabby articulation in Mozart’s G-major Violin Concerto, K. 216, which followed.
There also were ample compensations. Extraordinary charm, poise and wit illuminated the Haydn. Anne-Sophie Mutter--the glamorous soloist, who favored sentimental cadenzas by Sam Franko--ennobled much of the Mozart with sweet, limpid tone and exquisite legato phrasing.
Mutter, thank goodness, is not one of those violinists who can live on Bruch alone. She returned after intermission with a grateful novelty, Witold Lutoslawski’s “Chains 2.”
Championed by Mutter ever since she played the premiere in 1986, it is a dazzling, concerto-like essay that fuses romantic sonorities with contemporary structures. Lutoslawski, who wrote this orchestral “dialogue” when he was 72, knows exactly how to flex bravura muscles within the context of subtle linear convolution.
The piece, divided in four thematically overlapping movements, sustains harmonic tension over its taut, 20-minute span. Amid a subtly changing scale of colors, it provides its protagonist with splendid opportunities for graceful lyrical flight and introspective recitative, not to mention a climactic indulgence for heroic proclamation.
Suave even when threatened by bombast, Mutter played it with obvious commitment and total persuasion. Rhozdestvensky and the Philharmonic provided a poised yet assertive counterforce. The usually conservative Thursday-nighters applauded lustily.
To close the program, Rhozdestvensky turned to the gnarled, gut-thumping platitudes of Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini.” At least he unravelled the gnarls knowingly, and thumped the gut with appropriate passion.
Incidental intelligence: The biography of the Rhozdestvensky in the program magazine claimed he was “distinguished as the conductor who premiered Prokofiev’s Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies.”
As fact would have it, the Second Symphony received its premiere in 1925, the Third in 1928 and the Fourth in 1929. Rhozdestvensky was born in 1931.
We knew he was precocious. We didn’t know he was that precocious.