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MUSIC REVIEW : A Little Night Music From Peter Maag

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

A superstar returned to Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, and attracted a happy audience officially tabulated at 14,741.

The huge crowd wasn’t drawn by any matinee idol on the podium. The guest-conductor was Peter Maag, an under-rated old pro from Switzerland who had appeared here only once before--two nights earlier.

The magnet wasn’t any big-name instrumentalist. At concerto time, Michele Zukovsky stepped up from her usual chair as co-principal clarinetist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to serve--ably--as temporary soloist.

The program offered no Romantic warhorses and no fireworks, literal or figurative.

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Still, the masses came and the masses cheered. They cheered instantly, even between movements.

There can be only one explanation. His name is Mozart.

In the bad old days, Mozart appealed primarily to sophisticates and connoisseurs. That, of course, was before the cinematic throb of “Elvira Madigan,” before the dramatic distortion of “Amadeus” and before the pervasive packaging of “Mostly.” That also was before the international hype that has surrounded the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Thursday’s program under the stars, the fourth and final installment of our so-called MozartFest (ask not why the catchy label must be one word) focused on three of the precocious master’s Greatest Hits. It began--after an anachronistically mellow national anthem--with the almost redundant charms of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.” The night music continued with the muted bravura of the Clarinet Concerto and ended after intermission with the graceful G-minor urgency of the Symphony No. 40.

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In each hackneyed challenge, Maag proved himself a knowledgeable Mozartean of the old school. Without lingering over sentimental minutiae, he demonstrated an elegant and eloquent concern for matters of balance, poise and expressive meaning.

He shaded the line with subtle accents wherever possible. He reduced his forces in quest of authentic intimacy, and actually dared demand a shimmering pianissimo in the very wide, very open spaces. He respected Mozart’s structural imperatives enough to observe the internal repeats.

The Swiss maestro obviously appreciates the difference between delicacy and fussiness. He paid his attentive orchestra the compliment of virtually not conducting at all when physical commands seemed superfluous, and savored economy of gesture when commands were deemed imperative.

He is, at 72, a reassuring presence on the podium. The reason for his relatively low profile in the world of music for the last four decades remains a mystery.

In the magical Clarinet Concerto, he proved himself an unusually sensitive accompanist. Zukovsky mastered the long, ornamented lines with fluid finesse, her fragile tone discreetly and, contrary to recent acoustical innovations, separately amplified by a floor microphone.

Given more time for preparation, and an orchestra more familiar with his particular style, Maag might have even better luck achieving the consistent polish and the propulsion that were his apparent goals on this occasion. It may be worth noting, however, that at least one member of the Philharmonic finds the hectic performance conditions at the Bowl perfectly adequate.

A rather petulant letter in Calendar today from a veteran of the wind section points out that summer concerts receive “from three to 8 1/2 hours of rehearsal time, depending on the difficulty of the program.”

For some performers, and listeners, that may seem enough. For others, it may not.

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