Most garden-variety guest conductors like to end their debut concerts with a bang. It provides climactic punctuation for a musical ego trip.
A whomping cadential blast doesn't just wake up the subscribers. It gets the communal adrenalin a-pumping, and sends the folks home happy with the impression that they have experienced something momentous--e.g. noisy.
Sylvain Cambreling doesn't seem to be a garden-variety guest conductor. For his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Thursday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he chose to end the program with Mozart's Symphony No. 40. It closes with a kind and gentle G-minor resolution. Cambreling reduced it to a sigh.
This isn't the sort of effect that instantly inspires standing ovations. But it does reveal quite a bit about Cambreling's aesthetic priorities. He seems to value substance over sound, and sound over fury.
The 44-year-old Frenchman--Gerard Mortier's musical partner in Brussels since 1981 and now incipient chieftain of the Frankfurt Opera--is an elegant stylist. He has proved it with Gounod and Offenbach at the Met, not to mention his efforts on behalf of Mozart's much maligned "Finta Giardiniera" in a production celebrated from Brussels to Brooklyn (it moves, together with Mortier, to Salzburg this summer).
Cambreling is not an exclusive miniaturist by any means. His valedictory at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie was nothing less monumental than Wagner's "Ring," and he has ventured Berlioz's "Troyens" in Hamburg. Still, he knows the value of finesse, and he appreciates the impact of understatement.
Such qualities, unfortunately, are not easy to elicit from an unfamiliar orchestra on a one-week stand with a limited rehearsal schedule. On this occasion, Cambreling often had to settle for sketches and generalities.
He opened the program with the gutsy energy of Janacek's Sinfonietta. He obviously wanted to keep the expressive devices fluid, the folksy indulgences taut, the brass outbursts crisp. Nevertheless, the performance tended toward raucous distortion--partly, no doubt, because of technical mishaps and partly, perhaps, because of acoustical inequities created by the new Pavilion risers.
The impact of Cambreling's valedictory Mozart seemed predicated on rhythmic freedom, on lyric expansion and textural transparency. The conductor's most thoughtful intentions, however, were sometimes compromised by fuzzy execution.
At the center of the program, he enforced appreciative orchestral support for Andreas Hafliger, who chose Beethoven's so-called Second Piano Concerto (actually it was his first) for an introductory vehicle. The 29-year-old virtuoso played the music of the 25-year-old composer with mature sensitivity and with telling restraint. Youthful impetuosity would not seem to be his cliche.
One might complain that he kept the emotional temperature lower than necessary, and that he took the molto of the molto allegro so literally that the rondo finale teetered on the brink of a muddle. Still, one had to admire his ultimate daring, not to mention his fleet delineation of the opening allegro and the exquisite pathos with which he ennobled the adagio.
His father, Ernst Hafliger, was an artist of extraordinary taste and expressive economy, a tenor in the exalted tradition of Julius Patzak. It is reassuring to report that the son also rises.