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MUSIC REVIEW : Simon Rattle Guides Levinson Premiere and ‘Eroica’

TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Even with a disappointing first half--the world premiere of a tightly wound symphony by the American academic, Gerald Levinson--Simon Rattle’s return to the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic over the weekend had to be counted a success.

In Levinson’s complicated, overwritten and sometimes chaotic Second Symphony, Rattle and the orchestra held up to aural view as complex a contemporary piece as may exist--one, we hardly need add, which as a result probably will have many advocates and apologists.

In Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, Rattle & Friends--with revisionist musicological logic, logic that proved defensible in the ear--returned the composer’s third symphony to the repertory brilliantly and unconventionally. One ought to be grateful.

And, introducing each half of this serious but not ponderous program, they paid tribute to Rattle’s fellow Englishman, the 90-year-old Michael Tippett, in two brief but joyful fanfares written in 1953 and 1943, respectively.

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The “Eroica,” a piece seldom absent from the Philharmonic’s program for long, was given this time with reduced and specific forces approximating the ensemble that played the work’s premiere in 1805. The admirable transparency and leanness of sound then heard was not only a result of the smaller band, but also of quicker tempos--except in the Funeral March, of course--stronger contrasts, lightened textures.

It became crucial, also, that the guiding intellect on the podium clearly had, and consistently implemented, his own view of the work’s continuity and musical scenario. Give the troops something to follow and follow they will.

Rattle led the familiar score with a strong, even demonic, sense of purpose while maintaining a relaxed rapport with his colleagues. There was freshness as well as passion in the results.

The conductor, who will be 40 on Jan. 19, also brought clarity and intensity to the mammoth structure of Levinson’s symphony, written on a commission funded jointly by the L.A. Philharmonic Assn. and the Serge Koussevitsky Music Foundation Inc., “with additional support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.”

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But true conviction from the podium, plus what seemed to be thorough preparation and cooperation from the expanded orchestra, could not--on Friday night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, at least--save the 39-minute, largely atonal work from itself.

As revealed early in the first movement, the complexities here are multilayered, practically multidimensional. Until a solid wall of granitic chords emerges in the middle portion of the work, hyperactivity seems to inform every part of this piece. Much of that activity is engaging; some of it constitutes a ghostly layer of subtext in which disturbed emotions rise up, as dust rises in a room long unopened.

But, one soon finds, this abundance of notes and movement does not denote genuine substance or a commanding originality. It does reveal, however, an operative craft and an ear for instrumental textures.

The composer, startlingly underdressed for the occasion, was on hand to share his bows with conductor and orchestra.

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