After a long absence, the veteran Spanish conductor Jesús López-Cobos returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium Friday night. He had not appeared with the Phil since November of 1999, well before Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, so he was facing a different hall and in some respects, a different orchestra.
López-Cobos, who will be 76 in February, was a familiar guest with the Phil in the 1980s; he even made some recordings here, including a pleasing, if now obscure, one of Karl Goldmark's "Rustic Wedding" Symphony.
He is best-known for his 15 years at the Cincinnati Symphony (1986-2001), where a long string of sumptuously-recorded Telarc CDs reveals a suave, polished sound building on the orchestra's strong Germanic tradition. Not surprisingly, López-Cobos drew a well-fed, sometimes brass-heavy sound from the Philharmonic, with much of the programming planted in a comfort zone right in the middle of Central Europe.
But first, López-Cobos brought out something refreshingly unusual. It was a quirky, dramatic, energizing tone poem by his old composition teacher Cristóbal Halffter with the unwieldy title "Tiento del primer tono y batalla imperial." It was a West Coast premiere and probably the first time the Phil had ever played anything by this composer.
The piece starts out innocuously enough, with a dignified yet touching string orchestration of a keyboard piece by 16th century composer Antonio de Cabezón. Then the winds and brass gradually destabilize the harmonies and suddenly the whole thing blows up in a riot of aleatoric strings. The huge orchestra roars with noise, followed by battle cries from the horns and trumpets, and the piece ends with a thumping, militant coda. Yet there was economy in the drama; Halffter needed only 10½ minutes to cover all of this ground. Most of all, it was a lot of fun.
From there, the concert settled into the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, where López-Cobos and pianist Garrick Ohlsson served up a thick Teutonic potato soup, indeed. More than a half-century ago, Glenn Gould raised a ruckus when he and a famously dissenting Leonard Bernstein performed the Brahms at then-record-setting length, but nowadays, such slow tempos are almost the norm. Ohlsson and López-Cobos were more or less in that ballpark, as are Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel in their recent recording of the concerto.
In their onstage talk after the concert, Ohlsson and López-Cobos gave a plausible explanation for the tempos — that they were stretching them out more to take advantage of the lively, lingering Disney Hall acoustics. Be that as it may, I still thought the first two movements drifted tediously, though Ohlsson took the third movement at a more reasonably bracing speed.
More standard repertoire awaited after the break. Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 featured solid running rhythms, gracefully shaped turns of the phrase, and some nice touches like when López-Cobos lingered a bit around the mysterious center of the second movement to produce a foreboding quality amidst the nature scenes.
Los Angeles Philharmonic with conductor Jesus López-Cobos
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 2 p.m. Sunday