Edwards Inspires Precision, Little Drama From L.A. Phil


The Los Angeles Philharmonic went into its glittering machine mode when Sian Edwards took the podium Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The 37-year-old red-haired conductor presided over some remarkable playing. The strings played with crisp sweep and precision. Textures, thanks to her, were always clear and instrumental groups always balanced.

Still, it would have been nice to have all that and a little bit more. The music--well, most of it--by Berlioz, Ravel and Janacek, calls for out-sized emotions.


The Overture to Berlioz’s early “Les francs-juges” evokes a creepy medieval secret court, while Janacek’s “Taras Bulba” portrays three horrific but heroic deaths. This isn’t the kind of music in which balance and restraint are virtues.

Neither is Janacek’s reconstructed, lyrical Violin Concerto. Even Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, which completed the program, is a saucy work in which the composer hears insouciant jazz knocking at the door of French decorum and welcomes it in.

Unfortunately, pianist Philippe Bianconi, filling in on short notice for an indisposed Imogen Cooper, made Ravel’s concerto a very grand work indeed. He slighted most of the jazz elements, played broadly and spun out a very prosaic adagio movement. Edwards accompanied attentively. The wind soloists gave a hint of a more ingratiating style.

In the Berlioz Overture, Edwards dotted every I and crossed every T. Her account was so clear that the score unfolded like an anatomy lesson. But there was little dread and menace, little drama and struggle. And “Taras Bulba,” too, emerged more orderly than epic.

The major exception to all this occurred in the Los Angeles premiere of Janacek’s Violin Concerto (“Pilgrimage of the Soul”), a work that has an unusual history.

Janacek, who died in 1928, began writing a violin concerto in 1926 but abandoned the effort. He did, however, incorporate the material into the introduction of his final opera, “The House of the Dead.” The concerto was reconstructed from the composer’s original sketches, and although the program didn’t explain the process, it must have been a Herculean task.


The result is a very episodic one-movement work, lasting about 12 minutes and making nearly nonstop fiendish demands on the soloist, in this case the Philharmonic’s unflappable, virtuosic Elizabeth Baker.

The work begins quietly with the unaccompanied soloist playing a short lyrical theme. Soon she is engaging in an eerie pianissimo dialogue with three timpanists. Then the sparse instrumental texture slowly begins to be filled in.

Among the episodes that follow are vivid folk dance celebrations and, wonderfully, visions of nature as an explosive, transcendent force.

Edwards has conducted the work before, but no one could have been operating routinely. The piece is just too quirky and demanding. Baker was exceptionally confident. The orchestra was on its mettle. And the music soared as did nothing else on the program.