An old master adds excitement

Ginell is a freelance writer.

The splashy, relentless, pounding, high-volume conclusion of Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” tested the limits of Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon and drove the audience into frenzied applause. . . .

No, this is not reportage from a Gustavo Dudamel concert, nor a preview of these next two weeks when Dudamania hits town. The conductor was 75-year-old Spanish maestro Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos -- and he was just following Respighi’s instructions as faithfully executed by a world-class orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Concert hall excitement, therefore, doesn’t necessarily have to come from a 27-year-old fireball.

Fruhbeck de Burgos is keeping his travel bags packed this season, leading the best American orchestras from coast to coast. In the old master phase in his career, he has definite conceptions and knows how to get what he wants.


For Mozart’s “Serenata Notturna,” Fruhbeck de Burgos seated his small complement of strings across the front of the stage, placing the timpani to the extreme right and the string quartet-within-an-orchestra (two violins, viola and double bass) standing front and center. This heightened the concertante nature of the music, producing a three-dimensional effect in beautiful detail, with a slightly broad treatment of the Rondo’s theme offset by quicker tempos elsewhere. It was exquisite.

There were no slavish period-performance conformities in Fruhbeck de Burgos’ Beethoven Symphony No. 8 -- just vigorous, big-orchestra sonorities, rounded phrasing, tempos right on the dot. He tried something really different in the finale, slowing the tempo each time Beethoven prepares for his humorous discord, and then holding the misbehaving note out for maximum effect.

Besides the obvious thrills and chills in the extravagant climaxes of Respighi’s “The Fountains of Rome” and “The Pines of Rome” -- which Fruhbeck de Burgos brought off with exactly the right sense of timing and release -- there are plenty of mellower meditations in which astute conducting can and did realize the depths within. The high-powered Philharmonic could have provided a more rapt response in these passages within “Fountains,” but the orchestra reached that zone in “The Pines of the Janiculum,” with Michele Zukovsky’s soulful clarinet leading the way. The Disney Hall pipe organ did its job too, with pedal notes that you could feel vibrating in your bones.

You don’t see “The Fountains” and “The Pines” programmed together in concert very often these days -- and Fruhbeck de Burgos made you wonder why not.