Conductor Invigorates Philharmonic


The Los Angeles Philharmonic has long been a proving ground for young conductors, among them Zubin Mehta, Michael Tilson Thomas, Simon Rattle and, of course, Esa-Pekka Salonen. So it was about time that David Robertson, a conductor from Santa Monica with an important career in Europe, finally led the Philharmonic, even if the orchestra’s marketing department no longer has the taste for trumpeting fresh talent that it once did.

That neglect (along with a program of 20th century music) unfortunately meant empty seats at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday. Robertson may not yet be well known in the U.S., but he makes friends everywhere he goes. He conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time last season and already his name has entered the rumor mill of possible new music directors there; likewise the Houston Symphony. This month, Musical America--the industry bible--will break with tradition and name Robertson, rather than the usual high-profile maestro, its prestigious conductor of the year.

It is easy to think Robertson a modern music specialist--he’s extremely good at it. (Pierre Boulez handpicked him as his successor to the Ensemble Intercontemporain.) But he might just as likely be found conducting 19th century Italian opera, a Rachmaninoff symphony or the music of Schubert and Mozart.


Robertson is, in fact, one of the most impressive all-around conductors today. Consequently, his program of four 20th century pieces with the Philharmonic was not just fascinating and insightful, but also extremely pleasurable.

Going further, it caught the imagination by exploring issues that people care about deeply--the role of the individual in society and how we express ourselves, whether in freedom or oppression. The program: Ives’ “Three Places in New England,” Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, Tristan Keuris’ Sinfonia and Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Each was of interest by itself; together they meant even more.


Ives’ work created three different impressionistic soundscapes of New England places: imagined history in Boston Common; a riotously funny reproduction of the chaotic sounds that might have been heard in the town square as a Revolutionary marching band goes to war; and a somber meditation on the spirit inspired by the sounds of a Berkshires river. This is music, written during the first quarter of the century, that loudly proclaims an American spirit and its aggressive individualism.

Lutoslawski’s concerto, written a half-century later in Poland, is a highly theatrical representation of the cat-and-mouse game of the individual in a repressive society. The cellist speaks his mind when he thinks the orchestra isn’t listening, but mutters bland repeated notes when the band asserts itself. Lynn Harrell, who performed the solo part, proved not only a consummate virtuoso but also an inspired Beckettian actor who had the listener hanging on every gesture.

After intermission, two works took the Italian term sinfonia (“sounding together”) literally. Keuris’ piece, completed in 1974 by the late Dutch composer when he was still in his 20s, sneaks nostalgia in the form of rich harmonic wind chords into what appears at first to be Modernist soup. Janacek did something similar back in 1926 with Czech folk music in his proto-Minimalist Sinfonietta.

These works are also comments on society and how to integrate elements from the street and from personal memory into a formal European structure, and both do it with appealing flare--the Janacek piece spectacularly so.

All four works on the program were just as arresting in sound as in concept and form. Each is a showpiece for orchestra, and each was a knockout. Robertson conducts as if he is turning on switches of electronic equipment. He cues the players--his rhythmic sense is exhilarating--and then almost steps back to more broadly shape the phrases. He gives the players everything they need, but he is no control freak. Indeed, his conducting had just the qualities of the music he chose--freedom and restraint--and the results were impressive. Highlights of gripping performances included hauntingly ethereal string playing in the outer movements of the Ives, spicy winds in the Keuris and buttery brass in the Janacek.

In a couple of weeks a new administration takes over at the Philharmonic. I hope someone will have the power to lock Robertson in a room until he agrees to return, and often. If Los Angeles wants to be a real arts city, it needs to build on the best it has produced--and Robertson is that.