Chalk it up to post-Thanksgiving doldrums, but conductor Krzysztof Urbanski and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were not at the top of their game Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Though the program of standard works by Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms was geared to delight, this for the most part was a night of soporific, perhaps seriously under-rehearsed, music-making. Entrances were occasionally late, balances a bit messy and indistinct, intonation in the brasses not always spot on.
The glowing exception was the concert's centerpiece, a stylish, riveting performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 ("Turkish"). Buoyed by violin soloist Augustin Hadelich, Urbanski and the philharmonic proved alert and sensitive collaborators.
Hadelich, 32, born in Italy to German parents, is an intimate performer whose self-effacing quality allows the music to soar. He has what Mozart once told a friend was more important than virtuosity: taste and feeling.
From his delicately calibrated entrance to the Hungarian-sounding Rondo finale (the concerto's title is actually a misnomer), Hadelich's lean, burnished tone was supremely graceful and communicative. Mozart wrote no cadenzas for this concerto, so Hadelich wrote his own, picking up on themes and weaving them seamlessly into the concerto's softly contoured design.
Hadelich's encore, Paganini's Caprice No. 21 for Solo Violin, displayed plenty of virtuosity, as well as taste and feeling.
The similarly youthful Urbanski, 34, is in his sixth season as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Last year, he became the first conductor to win the Leonard Bernstein Award. He's a somewhat more restrained podium showman — no Bernstein-like jumping — but his whiplash-abrupt gestures vied with some puzzling ones. For example, in one of his favorite gestures, it looks like he's pulling taffy out of the air with the fingers of his raised left hand.
The concert opened with an overly meticulous, contrived account of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3. While the carefully prepared opening conveyed a suitable sense of foreboding, Urbanski simply refused to allow the music to unfold naturally.
In the concert's second half, a lack of a flowing musical line in his reading of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 became even more problematic, conveying little of the score's sustained drama and pastoral beauty. In the opening Allegro, Urbanski impeded forward momentum by inexplicably alternating between breaking up and slowing down the music. There were some effective moments in the Adagio, but after a graceful opening oboe solo from Anne Marie Gabriele, the Allegretto turned poky.
Even more baffling was the dislocated Allegro, which lost spirit and drive until an audience-pleasing burst of sound emerged from the trombones in the coda. But even that discrete highlight needed better balancing.
Urbanski shaped the symphony's peaks and valleys with annoying predictability, for example in the clumsy transitions from Brahms' string and brass writing into a sunnier section in the Allegro finale.
It sometimes didn't seem as if the orchestra was were playing together as a whole; the emphasis was on the sections, rather than integrating them into the score.
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