Austrian-born conductor Manfred Honeck took over the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2008 following a short-lived experiment with a troika of conductors -- and evidently they like him there, extending his contract through 2020. He has led the Los Angeles Philharmonic before, but not since 2000, so his appearance Thursday night was his debut in Walt Disney Concert Hall. And it was a memorable debut, even an electric one -- in a general-issue all-Dvorák program, of all things.
But first, fate dictated a last-minute prologue as Philharmonic President Deborah Borda and a surprise guest, Esa-Pekka Salonen, came onstage to eulogize Diane Disney Miller, who passed away on Tuesday. If it weren’t for Miller’s adamant effort to keep Frank Gehry as Disney Hall’s architect, the hall -- if it had been built at all -- would look and probably sound far different than it does today.
So as a memorial, Salonen led “The Enchanted Garden” from Ravel’s “Mother Goose” suite; it was warm, almost tearful, yet as clear as chamber music in this ever-revealing acoustic -- and as it concluded, Salonen put his arms down slowly and walked dolefully to the wings in near-total silence.
Now, how do you follow that? Honeck found a way, leaping into Dvorák’s “Carnival Overture” as if to celebrate the hall’s existence with as boisterous and as exuberant a performance as you can imagine, getting a sharp response from the Phil on accents with sudden, swiping gestures. And it wasn’t all fireworks and heat, for Honeck made the lyrical sections flow for maximum contrast.
Honeck also showed how flexible he can be from day to day. In June he recorded Dvorák’s Violin Concerto in Berlin with Anne-Sophie Mutter (Deutsche Grammophon), yet his rendition with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann on Thursday was considerably faster in tempo, with Zimmermann playing more incisively and with not as much plush emotion as Mutter.
Most remarkable of all was Honeck’s transformative rendition of the well-worn Symphony No. 8 -- slashing through the first movement with a coda on fire; trying out all kinds of strange, suspenseful ideas in the second movement; dancing, surging and ebbing through the third movement. Nothing was routine, every phrase was up for reexamination.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Manfred Honeck and Frank Peter Zimmermann: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 2 p.m. Saturday; $62-$195; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.
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