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Review: L.A. Phil lives up to the hype with electrifying guest conductor David Robertson

Conductor David Robertson is shown at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2016.
Conductor David Robertson is shown at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2016.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Music Critic

“Los Angeles,” the New York Times acknowledged this week after sampling two concerts in the Reykjavík Festival at Walt Disney Concert Hall, “has America’s most important orchestra. Period.” Expect to see that quote on Los Angeles Philharmonic promotions for a long time to come.

Although it is pure coincidence — orchestra concerts are typically planned well over a year in advance — the L.A. Phil is returning the compliment this week as it returns from its Icelandic exploit to a regular subscription schedule. The program, unveiled Thursday night and continuing through Sunday, could hardly be more New York Philharmonic-centric.

The evening began with Ives, whose influence on American music was widely fostered by Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic. The West Coast premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto followed. The composer has had a long association with the New York Philharmonic, including a three-year tenure as composer-in-residence that ran through 2015. (Esa-Pekka Salonen now holds that residency.) After intermission came Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony, one of the whole world’s most popular symphonies and famously given its premiere by the New York Philharmonic in 1893.

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This week’s guest conductor is David Robertson, a Santa Monica native, and on Thursday he led exhilarating performances that were news all by themselves.

Yes, Bernstein heralded the Ives revival at the New York Philharmonic in the early 1950s, but he never conducted one of Ives’ best known and most influential scores, “Three Places in New England.” In fact, the New York Philharmonic didn’t get around to performing it until 1969, when Pierre Boulez succeeded Bernstein. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, on the other hand, gave the first U.S. performance of the full orchestral version in 1932, three years after it was written.

For all the New York Philharmonic’s attention to Rouse’s orchestral pieces, beginning with commissioning his Trombone Concerto, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993, the orchestra won’t be playing the new Organ Concerto any time soon. Forty years ago, Lincoln Center tore out the organ in Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall) and that magnificent instrument now resides in the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

As for “New World,” it has also played a historic role here. Dvorák’s symphony happened to be the main work on the orchestra’s opening concert in Oct. 25, 1919. Otto Klemperer chose it four decades later to celebrate the Hollywood Bowl’s 1,000th concert. There are at least six L.A. Phil recordings of the symphony.

The Reykjavík Festival, no doubt, had something to do with the sense of exhilaration felt in Disney on Thursday. There were questions about whether all the young people who, flocking to the hall over the weekend to hear the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós and getting exposed to the L.A. Phil, might come back for something more traditional. Could it be another coincidence that so many young people, who looked an awful lot like the weekend crowd, were enthusiastically in the audience?

Newcomers are easy enough to tell. They’re more inclined to clap between movements (something that needn’t be, and happily wasn’t, discouraged). But the ultimate source of the exhilaration came from Robertson, who made everything, whether overly familiar or novel, sound important.

Nothing could be more rousing than Rouse’s new concerto. Co-commissioned by the L.A. Phil and written for organist Paul Jacobs, it was given its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra in November. I’m sure that was a more exciting occasion in the flesh than it sounded over the live radio broadcast. The Disney performance had many advantages, including the fact that on Saturday, as part of the Reykjavík Festival, Salonen had conducted Jón Leifs’ 1930 Organ Concerto. It began, just like Rouse’s, with a major blast from Hurricane Mama (Disney’s organ) underpinned by volcanically erupting timpani.

Rouse did something very similar, although he then went his own way with propulsive rhythms in the outer movements that had more in common with Sigur Rós than Leif, and with slow movement of arresting somber beauty. Jacobs tore into it. It didn’t get any better than this.

Surrounding the concerto with Ives and Dvorák, Robertson then gave an electrifying lesson in how American music got from there to here. Dvorák meant his “New World” to show American composers how to make Old World symphonies out of native melodies. Too many followed that dead end. Ives, though, showed how to make American concert music from American music, placing our tunes in the places they belong and playing them as we might hear them, as is and in the natural environment all broken up.

Robertson’s “New World” was about as New World as it can reasonably get. Instrumental textures were as clean and affectless as Copland. Shorn of European sentiment, the slow movement almost sounded radical. None of the L.A. Phil’s six recordings come close to matching the way Robertson’s made the rhythms come to life. The benches behind the orchestra were filled with schoolkids and they appeared, to a student, riveted.

Ives’ “Three Pieces” has never in my experience sounded more mysterious in its solemn evocations of the Revolutionary War or better unhinged in its celebrations of marching bands converging on a town square.

Robertson has long been a guest conductor of the L.A. Phil and has led provocative festivals. He’s never let us down. But he hadn’t quite developed the chemistry with the orchestra that can make concerts with his own St. Louis Symphony so compelling. This time, the chemistry happened. Robertson seemed to be practically jumping out of his body, as if going out on an unsteady limb for the L.A. Phil, which responded in kind.

The L.A. Phil players are among the highest-paid symphony musicians in the world, paid to be not just the most important but also some of the best. (Notice the L.A. Phil was not called the best.) No question, the Ives and Dvorák performances were not just important, they were sensational.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

L.A. Phil with David Robertson

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: From $63 (subject to change)

Info: (323) 850-2000, www.laphil.org

mark.swed@latimes.com

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