Review: At Disney Hall, L.A. Phil elegance amid an earthquake

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs at Disney Hall.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

If you ever wondered how cool the Los Angeles Philharmonic is under fire, a good test came unexpectedly Friday night, during the orchestra’s first concert after concluding a North American tour.

Six minutes into the performance of Ravel’s complete “Daphnis and Chloé,” at 9:09 p.m., a 5.1-magnitude earthquake centered near La Habra struck Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the largest temblors since the hall’s 2003 opening. The hall rocked and rolled for several seconds — like an airplane experiencing turbulence — and the place vibrated for more than a minute.

Although the orchestra seemed a bit rattled at first and the audience gasped, the unflappable veteran Charles Dutoit kept on conducting, never breaking stride, and the performance continued pretty much unimpeded. Welcome home, folks.

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Afterward, at a previously scheduled “talk back” session onstage during the Casual Friday concert, Philharmonic Vice President of Artistic Planning Chad Smith said a quick safety check had been made before the decision to continue the concert.

“I work a lot in Japan, so we have this all the time,” Dutoit said, while admitting that “it was hard to keep the concentration of the orchestra.”

Most everyone probably will remember this concert mostly for the earthquake, and less so for one of the best living exponents of the French repertoire revisiting a piece that played a historic role in his career. Dutoit’s spectacular recording of “Daphnis and Chloé" with the Montreal Symphony for the Decca record label in 1980 not only put that rebuilt orchestra on the international map, it also was one of the earliest and most powerful demonstrations of digital recording on LPs, paving the way for the compact disc.

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Dutoit takes “Daphnis” a little slower now, but he still gives you everything the music can provide — the rushes of orchestral power, the vivid sensuality, the ghostly effects, the French qualities of elegance in phrasing coupled with lucidity of texture — while holding the big, nearly hourlong score together in one piece. It’s the elegance, enforced by Dutoit with body language down to his knees, that was the main difference between this performance and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s physically jolting renditions here in the past. Members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale expertly oohed, aahed and drifted ethereally on command.

The companion piece was Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet venturing somewhat off his accustomed turf into the Germanic core classics as Dutoit backed him up with robust, mobile textures. Thibaudet could strut like an emperor with some power, but more often, he would employ a feather-like touch that one might expect in passages of Ravel; the famously recurring call-and-response theme of the finale employed both with considerable contrast. It was a mostly straightforward interpretation, and not that revelatory.