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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Beethoven and Haydn: Mitsuko Uchida, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 16 January 2005 (BJ)


For a Philadelphia resident luxuriating in the enjoyment of his city’s superb Verizon Hall, a Sunday in Los Angeles at the end of a conference offered an irresistible opportunity to sample an even newer concert hall in the –extremely unconventional – shape of the recently opened Walt Disney Hall. The occasion was the final concert in a fascinatingly programmed 11-day series of four programs in which Esa-Pekka Salonen and his Los Angeles Philharmonic joined forces with Mitsuko Uchida to perform all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos interleaved with the three symphonies of Haydn’s Morning-Afternoon-Evening trilogy. This last program comprised Beethoven’s Namensfeier Overture, Haydn’s Eighth Symphony, Le Soir, and Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto.

 

This was the first time I had ever seen a Frank Gehry building in, as it were, the flesh. So far as the exterior was concerned, I found the thrusting array of steel-clad shapes every bit as exciting as I had hoped. Aside from its bold array of semi-free-standing organ pipes, the interior of the auditorium (designed, says the web site, to look and feel like a ship’s hull) is less extraordinary, and to my eye not as successful in visual terms. The walls have a Douglas fir facing that, by comparison with Verizon’s rich, warm mahogany, looks undistinguished, and the upholstery of the seats presents a mishmash of not very attractive colors.

 

The sound, however, is obviously the most important thing, and in this regard Gehry’s collaborator, Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, seems to have achieved a highly satisfactory result. Immediately with the first chord of the Beethoven overture, the Philharmonic’s sonority presented a near-ideal combination of liveliness, warmth, and transparency. The various orchestral solos in the Haydn symphony, too, came out in effective balance (including some effervescent playing from principal cellist Peter Stumpf, a gifted musician whom Salonen enticed across the continent from Philadelphia, much to our loss, a couple of years ago), and when the piano entered the picture, it too fitted into an admirably natural and lucid overall sound-picture.

 

Now 46, and into his 13th season as the Philharmonic’s music director, Salonen was already a remarkable talent when I first heard him in Sweden and in his native Finland about 25 years ago, and he has matured into a maestro of commanding technique, broad stylistic sympathies (he is himself a more than ordinarily stimulating composer), and vivid yet never eccentric interpretative ideas. Once or twice in the past I have found him inclined to take classical slow movements at a somewhat leaden pace, and that happened (though in this case it may have been the soloist’s choice) in the Adagio un poco mosso of the concerto: here Beethoven’s two beats to the alla breve measure were consistently subdivided into four slowish beats, quite aside from the exaggerated pianissimo of the opening dynamic; surely the composer would have written “pp,” rather than a single “p,” if he had wanted the theme to skirt the borders of inaudibility in this romanticized manner. But that was my only complaint about the conductor’s interpretations, and he has certainly brought his orchestra to a high level of artistry, its effect enhanced by his use of left-right seating for the two violin sections.

 

Clearly, the main work on this program was the Beethoven concerto. Why, you may be wondering, have I so far said nothing about the soloist’s performance? Let me be candid. I have never understood the widespread esteem in which Mitsuko Uchida is held, alike by audiences, by many of my critical colleagues, and by a number of musicians whom I myself greatly respect. I came to this concert fervently hoping to be able to change my mind, not only because there can be no questioning Ms Uchida’s seriousness and dedication, which shines from every nuance of her deportment on stage, but because there is nothing more satisfying to a critic than to discover virtue, mastery even, where he has previously found no such thing. But it was not to be. It seems I have my ears on differently from all Ms Uchida’s admirers, for where they hear (to quote one opinion) a “poet of the piano,” I hear a run-of-the-mill pianist who wavers between dullness and a somewhat arbitrary self-indulgence, who regularly sounds as if she wishes she were playing music more romantic than what is on the program, and whose tone withal lacks either finesse or any notable degree of bloom.

 

There were indeed moments of beauty in her “Emperor,” but they were substantially outnumbered by problematic passages. The cascading scales and arpeggios of the first movement’s grand exordium must have a sense of impulsiveness – but the listener should also be able to distinguish some line in the piano part rather than just the vague wash of harmonic effects that Ms Uchida’s breathless dash through the opening pages produced. In the piano’s soft statement of the second subject, the left hand was in dynamic terms so far suppressed that it was impossible to keep aural tabs on the underlying rhythm. Many times in this first movement, and again in the Adagio, the soloist’s insistent emphasis on subordinate beats substituted mechanism for flow. And yet, time and again, individual notes would stick out of a sustained phrase in a manner at once inconsistent, expressively damaging, and seemingly unconsidered.

 

As I have acknowledged, I am in a minority. A standing ovation of unmistakable enthusiasm was the response to this performance. But a reviewer can only tell you what he heard, and what I heard in this concerto was a solo interpretation on nowhere near the same level of inspiration and skill as was shown by Salonen and his orchestra.

 

 

Bernard Jacobson

 

 

 



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