MUSIC REVIEW : Mehta, Philharmonic Welcome the New Year

TIMES MUSIC WRITER

There are never any guarantees that particular programs will work, yet Zubin Mehta put together a winner of a pops agenda in planning the Los Angeles Philharmonic's New Year's Eve performance in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center.

This combination of American pops, French arias and Viennese musical confections by Johann (and Josef) Strauss brought together and juxtaposed the unusual and the predictable in a welcome mix.

And it was performed before a large audience Tuesday night for a worthy cause, the L.A. Philharmonic Pension Fund being the beneficiary of proceeds--tickets were priced from $300 down to $40. The players (numbering 88) and guest conductor donated their services--which is customary but still noteworthy.

From the opening piece, Gershwin's "Cuban" Overture, to the evening-closing "Auld Lang Syne" (following an encore), this was a happy occasion, enthusiastically, stylishly and often neatly played by the Philharmonic, led by Mehta in masterly fashion.

At this point in history, no one can be surprised by the orchestra's effortless versatility, displayed here in pieces as diverse as Johann Strauss' "Emperor" Waltz and an excerpt from Duke Ellington's "The River."

But the pleasures the ensemble creates in such disparate repertory are real, nonetheless. A few blemishes aside, this was a performance of genuine energy and strong musical feelings, starting on the podium, and shared generously with the auditors.

The novelty was the Philharmonic debut of the Korean-born, Italian-trained soprano Sumi Jo, a Karajan protegee who has recently repeated some of her European operatic successes on this side of the Atlantic.

In "Je suis Titania," from Thomas' "Mignon," the Bell Song from "Lakme" and two Johann Strauss standards, "Voices of Spring" and "Mein Herr Marquis" from "Die Fledermaus," Jo displayed her accuracy, flexibility and easy top notes.

Yet she failed mostly to produce a distinctive sound, clear connections to words or a special personal style. And too often, her singing was uncharacterized, lacking not only pungency but also intensity and warmth.

As an encore to the evening, she sang a pleasing, but far from memorable, "Vilia," from Lehar's "Die Lustige Witwe." The encore to that was the pouring of champagne and informal toasting from stage to audience.

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