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Overcautious Saraste Leads Philharmonic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto didn’t acquire its nickname because it lacked majesty in conception and execution. But that was exactly the quality missing when the work was played by pianist Andreas Haefliger and the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Jukka-Pekka Saraste on a three-part program Thursday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Much of the fault belongs to Saraste, whose conception of conducting seems limited to time-beating. Up and down, relentlessly went his arms, as high and as low in quiet passages as in loud ones. Occasionally, he came to life and swept energy into a phrase, but he soon let the momentum dissipate.

So forget about phrasing, purpose and architecture. Saraste appeared to have few ideas even about dynamics. Loud and louder were the prevailing norms.

Many decisions therefore fell to the orchestra. Or seemed to. All evening, the Philharmonic sounded uncharacteristically raucous and crude, simplistic and clotted. Timpani assaults were almost unbearable.

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Saraste has conducted the orchestra before (in 1993), but he seemed overly cautious and tentative, as if he were encountering strangers. Neither he nor Haefliger made any strongly characterized statements. The “Emperor” therefore emerged more like Beethoven’s lyrical Fourth Concerto than at its proper grand scale.

Haefliger offered fistfuls of pearly tones without, however, making them sound purposeful in shape and impact. Yes, he was forceful and fluent. No, he did not project a concept of the music.

Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, which closed the program, similarly proved an occasion for a thousand missed opportunities. The conductor pumped his arms, the beat came numbingly after every bar line; half the orchestra could have gone home for all its perceived contributions.

Concertmaster Martin Chalifour tried to help, but his energized and expressive bowings were not mirrored in his colleagues’ playing. It was a ponderous, rote performance of a wondrous score.

Given the problems heard in such well-known works, it is difficult to conclude that the formlessness heard in Peter Lieberson’s “Drala,” in its West Coast premiere, falls exclusively at the feet of the composer.

Lieberson loads the work with extra musical associations. The title combines the Tibetan words dra (enemy) and la (above) to suggest the transcendence of aggression. Similarly, such section titles as “Gathering” or “Offering and Praises” invite speculation about specific mood or scene painting.

Indeed, the 17-minute continuous piece did sound often like a film score, suggesting more important action taking place somewhere else. It was loose and loopy and sounded occasionally like American jazz via Tibet.

Nevertheless, Lieberson, who was on hand to take bows, looked radiantly happy with the performance.

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* Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, pianist Andreas Haefliger and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will repeat the program today at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $15 to $60. (714) 553-2422.


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