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MUSIC REVIEW : Europe Preview at the Bowl Shows Serious Side of Salonen

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Say this for Esa-Pekka Salonen. He is a conductor open to new ideas. Even bad ones.

Last year around this time, he serenaded the picnic crowd at Hollywood Bowl with an indigestible mishmash that juxtaposed symphonic sophistication with pop, schlock and jazz.

This summer, his alfresco music-making remains emphatically, uncompromisingly serious.

It is hard to know if the change of stylistic heart reflects a new aesthetic idealism or mere practicality. The Los Angeles Philharmonic embarks on an ambitious European tour next week, and the maestro has to polish the export repertory. This is no time for frivolous detours.

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The opening item on the program Tuesday night offered a potential shock, not to mention a flirtation with audience alienation. The music of Elliott Carter isn’t exactly lingua franca in our wide open spaces.

Salonen did not venture a thorny example of Carter’s late output, to be sure. Our maestro opted for the relatively conservative First Symphony, written in 1942 when the composer was a cautious 29.

The inherent dissonances didn’t threaten to stretch many ears among the 22,788 reportedly assembled for the occasion. But the contemporary opus didn’t promise much solace for the hum-along habitues either.

No matter. No problem. The Bowl survived its ordeal by Carter with ease, and with honor.

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Salonen conducted this example of rugged musical Americana as if the inlets of Cape Cod meant as much to him as the fiords of Finland. In the maestro’s calm, analytical hands, clever Carter--always individual and ultimately poignant--sounded no more forbidding than folksy Copland.

The road to accessibility (everything is relative) represented an expressive cul-de-sac for the composer. Still, it is a cul-de-sac of historic interest. Salonen and the Philharmonic explored it with telling sympathy and affecting fervor.

They closed their lengthy program in similar triumph with an unusually tight and propulsive performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony. Like all interpreters of this once over-popular essay in orchestral indulgence, they found the composer most congenial in flights of arching lyricism, somewhat trying in passages of redundant bombast.

If one must endure the thematic bludgeoning of the hyper-extended finale, it may be best to endure it in a performance as crisp and restrained as this one. Unlike some famous colleagues, Salonen kept Sibelius’ ideas flowing as briskly as logic would permit, never dawdling to stress the obvious. The Philharmonic responded to his no-nonsense urgings with virtuosic flair in depth.

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The centerpiece of the evening was Mozart’s beloved D-minor Piano Concerto, K. 466. This challenge turned out to be a bit more problematic.

Emanuel Ax, the powerful soloist, played with the purity, clarity and grace that have earned him international acclaim for nearly two decades. Choosing fascinating, slightly anachronistic cadenzas by Beethoven and Hummel, he persuasively stressed the heroic storm behind the Mozartean charm in the outer movements.

The tender Romanze emerged brisk and prosaic, however, and the aura of repose wasn’t exactly enhanced by the jet-buzz ostinato that cut through the pianissimo reflection. The skies will be friendlier, we trust, in London, Birmingham and Amsterdam.

Salonen’s accompaniment seemed more dutiful than beautiful. Mozart may not be his cup of aquavit.

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