The violent ambivalences, schizophrenic moods and emotional high and low tides encompassed in Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony returned to Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night, courtesy of conductor David Zinman and the Orchestra of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute.
Considering the disadvantages the training orchestra faced in such a challenge--essaying the not-unfamiliar work in a venue where major international ensembles have played it in recent years, hazarding the vicissitudes of climate and humidity, adjusting to yet another new conductor in a short rehearsal period--the strong, fluent reading Zinman elicited from the young players emerged genuinely impressive.
It revealed again the American conductor's ability to go to the heart of extended works, to express musical structure and integrity while tending to the smaller matters of articulation and nuance.
In this long and sometimes apparently sprawling work, which runs a number of gamuts simultaneously, the long view, as well as the detailing, is necessary; without a calming force to keep all parts functioning together, Mahler's conflicting creative impulses can contradict each other manically.
Zinman's steadiness in leading this brilliant band of young musicians proved admirable through the length of the work. He did not dampen the vehement moments that characterize four of the five movements, but kept them in a context of shifting moods.
He allowed climaxes to occur, where they occur, without manipulating or overstating them. He encouraged dynamic and expressive specificity in the ebb and flow of the orchestral line--especially in the unexpected waltzes and reveries of the Scherzo--and let natural balances between instrumental choirs find their equilibrium.
The kind of musical breast-beating some virtuoso orchestras produce in this piece never took place, though the distances between very loud and very soft became as wide as possible in an outdoor setting; true Mahlerian nuance seldom happens in Cahuenga Pass. If the youthful orchestra erred, it was in the direction of reserve, a certain holding back, a failure of stridency. Still, some listeners prefer that kind of reserve. And every solo statement could boast a worthy protagonist.
The pre-intermission portion of this concert, which marked Zinman's final appearance in the Bowl this summer, was devoted to Emanuel Ax's final installment in his three-program survey ofBeethoven's piano concertos.
Ax's assured and unflappable playing of the "Emperor" Concerto proved to be not the last, or even the penultimate, word on this work, which, in Ax's hands, lacks the elegance and authority many others have brought to it.
In a world of Beethoven specialists, the choice of this pianist to play this cycle seems odd. If he were colorful, flamboyant or eccentric, that choice, even though unsatisfying, might be defensible. As it was, he turned out merely undistinguished and unmemorable. A wonderful opportunity was lost.