Music Reviews : Conductor Grant Gershon Gives an Assist at Podium

Young conductors are always making debuts. Grant Gershon, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's conducting assistant since last year, made another one Thursday night: his first appearance on the Philharmonic podium at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion since being promoted--effective next season--to the next rung on his career ladder, the post of assistant conductor.

Gershon, 34, took over the program scheduled by guest conductor Lawrence Foster--reportedly ill but still due to conduct here next week--on short notice. It consisted of the world premiere of Rand Steiger's inventive and colorful "The Burgess Shale," Ravel's Piano Concerto (For the Left Hand) as played by Leon Fleisher, and a revival of Manuel de Falla's ballet score "El Sombrero de Tres Picos."

The total performance, not heavily attended--downstairs in the Pavilion, one saw many more empty seats than usual for a Thursday--went more than smoothly, it fairly percolated along.

Gershon led Steiger's "concerto for orchestra" (the composer's description and a fair one) without sweat or strain and let it speak for itself. He and the Philharmonic gave Fleisher, for three decades now a specialist in left-hand repertory, complete support in one of the famous pianist's signature pieces. And he left the orchestra alone--which is to say, he never meddled or fussed--to play "The Three-Cornered Hat" perhaps as beautifully as it can.

Steiger's kaleidoscopic but tightly organized orchestral showpiece, commissioned by the Philharmonic, seems to contain everything but the kitchen sink--and perhaps that, too, is part of the percussion battery at the back of the orchestra. Yet it all fits. Written, according to the composer, specifically for these players, it is a virtuoso romp that moves along at a cinematic pace, ending in a huge symphonic climax nearly 27 minutes after its beginning.

The composer's fascinating annotations, included in the program booklet, added spice to the performance, yet the piece succeeds without literary help. There is logic and continuity through its length and a compelling rhetoric, too. Second, third and 10th performances are called for.

Falla's irresistible score closed the program with appropriate stylishness, clean surfaces and strong soloism from the orchestra. Gershon might have pointed up more details, highlighted more niceties--the "Baile del Molinero" needed rhythms less flaccid, for instance--but generally got out of the way of the sweep of the music. The warm-voiced soloist in the two obbligato vocal parts was mezzo-soprano Carmella Jones.

At mid-program, Fleisher brought fervent authority and a wealth of detail to his playing of the Ravel masterpiece. Oddly, however, this hearty performance fell below the remembered level of passion from Fleisher's playing of the same work with the Pacific Symphony in May, 1990. Strangely enough, Fleisher himself led that performance, from the keyboard.

* Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Grant Gershon, will repeat this Steiger/Ravel/Falla program tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. (213) 365-3500. Tickets: $6-$50.

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