Review: Christian Zacharias uneven with L.A. Philharmonic

Christian Zacharias, background, conducts the L.A. Philharmonic on Nov. 29, 2013. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, foreground, is the soloist in a familiar Bach concerto and a small Schubert rarity.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

After Christian Zacharias had conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in plush, punchy, skillfully proportioned yet not always stirring performances of works by Stravinsky, Bach, Schubert and Schumann, I turned to the Marx Brothers. Groucho had answers for many of life’s predicaments. The 1946 screwball entertainment “A Night in Casablanca” happened to be especially relevant.

Friday’s program in Walt Disney Concert Hall began with Stravinsky’s “Danses Concertantes” in its first complete performance by the L.A. Phil, even though the antic 20-minute ballet score, also intended as a concert work, was written in Los Angeles and had its premiere at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in 1942. But what’s Groucho got to do with any of that?

Stravinsky conducted the ballet score’s premiere with the Werner Janssen Orchestra. Janssen, an American conductor and Stravinsky friend with a sideline as a film composer, went on to write the score for “A Night in Casablanca.” Ironically, zany dance music that had originally been written just as the United States was entering into war clearly inspired the zany music to accompany an ex-Nazi jewel thief getting his incomparably choreographed Marx Brothers comeuppance. It may have taken the L.A. Phil seven decades to get around to a classic local work, but Hollywood was on the case quickly.


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The first performance of “Danses Concertantes,” two months and one day after Pearl Harbor and at a time when there were daily reports about the German invasion of the Soviet Union, might have seemed inappropriate given the way Stravinsky satirizes Russian ballet. But the humor is affectionate, and one thing this score is not is German-sounding. Reviewing the premiere, the Times critic Isabel Morse Jones described the work as abruptly moving from one idea to another. “Part of it,” she wrote, “is satire and part of it is sentiment.” And that is exactly the Marx Brothers’ enduring formula as well.

Stravinsky conducted that premiere, and members of the L.A. Phil did, in fact, play “Danses Concertantes” under the composer’s watchful ear when Robert Craft recorded the score in Hollywood in 1967 with the orchestra, called the Columbia Symphony Orchestra for contractual reasons. The recording is neither satirical nor sentimental but emphasizes Stravinsky’s sharp, rhythmic edge, perhaps more suited to the modernist musical tendencies of 1967 than 1942.

Zacharias, on the other hand, brought out earnest sentiment. The German pianist and conductor, who made his U.S. debut with the L.A. Phil in 2000, is noted for his finesse with Classical period and early-Romantic composers (Mozart, Schubert and Schumann in particular). Neo-Classical Stravinsky for Zacharias was just that, graceful and Mozartean.

“Danses Concertantes” is for chamber orchestra, no doubt one reason why it never found itself on the L.A. Phil concert schedule. And Zacharias devoted the first half of his program to other chamber works not common to L.A. Phil’s programs: Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E and Schubert’s youthful Concert Piece in D. Both featured concertmaster Martin Chalifour as soloist.

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Chalifour is an ideal Stravinskian, and that helped greatly tie these three disparate works together. As concertmaster since 1995 of the orchestra that has probably played more Stravinsky in these years than any other, the violinist is obviously at home in the cool, eloquent and unshowy style Stravinsky liked. Chalifour’s Bach was, thus, ideally clear, to the point, phrased with a love for detail.

Schubert’s mini-concerto, a rarity also played by the orchestra for the first time, is slight and full of Viennese dance music. Once is pretty much enough, but nothing of Schubert is without interest and the teenage composer here shows just the kind of unexpected flair that Stravinsky went in for. Zacharias made it sing. Chalifour gave it zing.

Schumann’s Second Symphony took over the evening’s second half. Zacharias physically threw himself into it. He achieved a velvety orchestral sound. He sculpted sound with his hands as though it were moist clay. He rounded out melodies with good manners even when giving accents a good cuffing.

The L.A. Phil brass provided Schumann a sumptuous setting out in the symphony’s introduction. Some of Stravinsky’s rhythmic energy and satire found its way into Zacharias’ approach to the Scherzo. But too much sentiment held back the flow of the slow movement.

For the Finale, which was taken slowly, Zacharias relied on the incompatible balance of careful classicism and monumentality.

That’s a temptation to which the Marx Brothers slightly succumb in “A Night in Casablanca,” hilarious as it is. But they are saved, as Stravinsky was in “Danses Concertantes,” by never losing their irreverence. Instead of tapping into some of Stravinsky’s incessant dance energy, Zacharias remained, in Schumann’s Second, reverent.