Hitting All the Right Notes

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has begun its season in a manner that seems to belie all the talk about it being the world's most innovative orchestra. After a gala Wednesday more about Kathleen Battle than the Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen opened the subscription concerts Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with programming that looked, on the face of it, so conventional as to appear pandering.

Copland's most popular curtain-raiser, "El Salon Mexico," the inevitable Rach 3 and Sibelius' "Swan of Tuonela" are the classics that banks, doctor's offices and elevator manufacturers regularly turn to. But there is something of an El Nin~o blowing through the Music Center right now.

A warm Pacific amazes us because it brings weather from one part of the globe to another. Maybe that explains why Salonen, a Finn, could sound so right for Copland, and gringo Copland at that. It's a surprise, perhaps, but maybe it shouldn't be.

This isn't real Mexican music and doesn't pretend to be. It is more like an exquisitely cropped photograph of Mexico taken by a tourist with a great eye, an excellent camera and the best color film. It is a clear, gleaming and hugely enthusiastic look at another culture, and Salonen knows exactly how to find that equivalent in sound. His strengths mesh exceedingly well with Copland's.

He finds the center of the music in rhythm and in the energy it can produce. And he also knows how to listen to the Philharmonic's own accents. This orchestra knows its way around this kind of music the way few do, and the players seemed very much at home. Salonen has not been associated with such quintessentially American music, but this was Copland startlingly fresh and exciting and original.

In 1990, Salonen recorded the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman as soloist in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra. In 1992, Salonen recorded Sibelius' "Lemminkainen Legends" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic a few months before he became its music director. Thursday's concert, with both these works, might appear to be simple recycling, but, in fact, offered concrete evidence of just how much the Philharmonic and Salonen have accomplished.

Bronfman was again soloist in the Rachmaninoff. He is a big player with monumental tone and fingers that fly as if motorized. In the 7-year-old recording, both he and Salonen made points. They took a microscope to the score to find anything they could that is modern in the music. And they found plenty of interest in the rhythms and big clusters of harmonies. But Rachmaninoff let them down, and they, in turn, let the composer down. Rachmaninoff took chances, but he also retreated, and players have to bluster on.

Now both Bronfman and Salonen are much better at blustering. Bronfman made an enormous meal of the monumental concerto. Notes flew faster than the ear could take in. He attacked the keyboard with muscle and vigor. He did not let the music's sentimental byways interrupt his sweeping momentum. And Salonen seemed now the happy virtuoso conductor, engineering the orchestra around hairpin turns at great speed. What a pleasure it seemed to have this concerto, for once, divorced of all the gush lately attached to it.

Salonen has been cautious about Sibelius. He programs Finland's most famous cultural figure but not excessively. It is music to which he feels perhaps too close, and he is taking his time working through the symphonies here. In fact, he is more likely to program the lesser known tone poems than the most famous symphonies.

The "Lemminkainen Legends" are four early tone poems, their poetic content taken from Finland's epic "Kalevala." They are not often heard together, although "The Swan of Tuonela" is famous for its tuneful lyricism. But Salonen's performance of the 45-minute cycle reveals multifaceted music written at the end of the 19th century that looks squarely into the face of the 20th and anticipates the strange personality of the symphonist to come.

The recording Salonen made with the Philharmonic still stands up as an introduction to the work (there is little competition in the catalog). But it is now out of date. Salonen and the Philharmonic Thursday night made everything sound more focused, more powerful, more alive, more startlingly three-dimensional, more, dare we say, world class.

* This program repeats tonight at 8 and Saturday at 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $8-$63. (213) 850-2000.

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