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Review: Juanjo Mena dances L.A. Philharmonic to season’s close

Juanjo Mena made his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011 with Falla, Poulenc and Debussy – straddling the Spanish-French border like the Basque region from which he comes.

Clearly he was good enough to get a return engagement, so Mena, now 47, went indoors Thursday night and led some very impressive Mozart and Brahms in Walt Disney Concert Hall to close the 2012-13 season.

As bread-and-butter programs go, this was an unusually structured one, with no soloists and three built-in encores. On the other hand, placing Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 first instead of last is not a novel idea (Herbert von Karajan, for example, did it that way); the piece’s mellow, reflective ending is not exactly made for wild concert-ending applause.

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In any case, Mena was out to create a unified mood – and he did so with fluid, graceful gestures, producing a massive, thick texture that heaved and melted, the phrases questioning and answering one another. At times, the Philharmonic seemed to be channeling its inner Giulini sound from long ago, yet the musicians could also react sharply to the rhythms in the finale.

For Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Mena – again working without a score – produced a markedly different texture, velvety yet clear, with the right voices brought forth at the right times, the emotion in the music pouring out without exaggeration. No matter how many times one has heard the symphony’s opening melody, Mena’s shaping made it sound fresh and moving again – and that’s a real achievement.

The “encores” were Brahms’ best-known Hungarian Dances – Nos. 1, 6 and 5, in that order – and Mena, who had begun to display some choreography in the Mozart, really went to town here. He was all over the podium, conjuring the sliest, slipperiest slowdowns followed by explosive payoffs, having uninhibited fun. You could almost say the Bowl season has already begun.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic with Juanjo Mena, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $60-$189. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

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