Peter Maag, the eminent Swiss maestro who recently celebrated his 76th birthday, “is renowned chiefly as a Mozart conductor”. Thus speaks the equally eminent “Grove Dictionary”.
The management of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is trying to underscore the point this week in the vast--probably far too vast--open spaces of the Hollywood Bowl. Twice.
Tuesday night, the itinerant Mozartian was entrusted with three Great Hits from the orchestral repertory: the “Haffner” and “Jupiter” Symphonies plus the D-Major Violin Concerto, with Frank Peter Zimmermann making an auspicious debut as soloist.
Tonight Maag is scheduled to return to lead a rare concert performance of “Die Zauberflote”, with young singers from his opera workshop, a.k.a. “La Bottega”, in Treviso, Italy.
Maag’s Mozart, according to “Grove”, “combines natural grace with Classical brio”. One experienced more of the former than the latter on Tuesday at Cahuenga Pass.
The conductor’s expertise was never in doubt. Maag is an old-school no-nonsense professional. He appreciates good grammar as well as good taste.
He knows that less is usually more when it comes to 18th-Century rhetoric. He doesn’t push, refuses to exaggerate. He savors the subtle nuance, cherishes the lyrical flight. He understands the essential secret: Mozart always wrote vocal music, even when the voices on duty happened to belong to instruments.
The performances on this occasion, however, didn’t invariably support his best intentions. The Philharmonic, overworked and under-rehearsed in the midst of a grueling summer season, could be forgiven for sounding a bit tired. The over-amplification system, less easy to forgive, created a particularly disorienting oxymoron: crass delicacy. And Maag’s body language elicited orchestral responses sometimes more notable for sluggishness than precision.
The evening began with an extraordinarily stately and stolid reading of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. As is so often the case, the interpretation of the national anthem offered a preview of coming attractions.
Next, Maag turned to Mozart’s sprightly “Haffner”. On this occasion, it was warm and hearty, gentle and sane, a well-routined exercise in old-fashioned Gemutlichkeit . It wasn’t sprightly.
The evening ended with the heroic poise of the “Jupiter” Symphony. On this occasion, the valedictory was calm and serene, spacious and reasonably precise. It was neither heroic nor poised.
And it certainly wasn’t lively. Maag defined little vivace in the opening Allegro vivace. When he reached the climactic Molto allegro, he seemed to overlook the initial adjective.
In general, this wasn’t a particularly good night for poetry under the stars and copters. It was a good night for reflective prose, however, and a pleasant night for dozing.
A wake-up call, of sorts, did come mid-concert when Zimmermann arrived to invigorate the Violin Concerto, K. 218. The 30-year-old German virtuoso, whose only previous appearance here was with the Oslo Philharmonic at the Music Center in 1991, traced the intricate solo lines with elegant, slender tone, with impeccable intonation, remarkable accuracy and considerable dynamic flair.
He threw in some classy embellishment of his own, admittedly in odd places, and, for reasons unknown, exhumed the time-dishonored Joachim cadenzas. One could argue with his stylistic choices, if not with his expressive convictions. Maag and the Philharmonic provided sensitive, unobtrusive accompaniment.
An audience officially tabulated at 8,535 (not bad for non-stellar alfresco Mozart) seemed to enjoy its not-so-little night music. Spotted among the assembled devout, incidentally, was District Attorney Gil Garcetti, apparently savoring a respite from O.J./Ito dissonances.