In his second week as guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which began Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Christian Thielemann evoked an unappealing analogy.
Building the Great Wall of China must have been something like this: labor intensive, setting block by weighty block of stone in place, filling in the mortar, leveling the courses, having all the time in the world and little concern with where it was all going or how long it would take to get there.
Yes, the audience cheered when he brought Brahms' Second Symphony to its sure-fire brass-whooping close, but overall, Thielemann had led a slow, finicky and passionless performance of the piece.
He seemed preoccupied with sheen and evenness; equality of all parts, whether foreground or background, and pointed, undramatic phrasing. He was clearly reaching for an elusive ideal, vaguely in the Furtwangler vein, whom he recalled in the imprecision of his beats and the ensuing raggedness of orchestral entrances, but not much else.
At least in Bartok's Viola Concerto, completed and orchestrated after his death by Tibor Serly, he had the benefit of soloist Yuri Bashmet, who had been scheduled to play the work with the orchestra in 1993, but was forced to withdraw then because of illness.
Bashmet played with lyrical and warm tone, bringing sweetness and tenderness to the slow movement (Adagio religioso) and breath-taking ease in the cadenza that leads into the fiery finale. Thielemann accompanied with precise but antiseptic involvement.
The conductor had served notice of his approach as early as the opening work, Mendelssohn's Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which emerged as if designed more for a five-act tragedy than a mercurial comedy. Even Bruckner's dead-weight Overture in G minor offers more sparkle than this version did.
* Christian Thielemann will lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the same program today at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. $6-$58. He will conduct Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Overture and Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony on Saturday at 2 p.m. $5-$25. (213) 365-3500.