Monday, February 23, 2009

Program Notes: Munich Symphony at UCLALive

by Joseph Mailander

Philippe Entremont, conductor and pianist, donned long-tails with a single vent in the back for a multipronged melange of Wagner, Beethoven, Webern and Mendelssohn at Royce Hall February 21.

The sight of the maestro in full dress may have initially mesmerized the members of the Munich Symphony Orchestra, because they sleepwalked through the first piece on the program, Wagner's lyrical Siefgried Idyll, as though they had been lulled themselves by the lullaby within the piece.

After a few inopportune brass bleatings and lackluster responses from timid cellos, the conductor walked off the stage without acknowledging anyone in the orchestra, not even a wind, and the audience responded with timid applause that ended abruptly at the maestro's disappearance. I thought the performance lackluster, even disappointing, and I obviously did not see the same piece that the Times' Rick Schultz did, and nor, do I believe, did most of the audience.

But Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 proved a far better fit for the musicians, probably the best fit of the night. From the first moments, with Entremont conducting while seated at Royce's nine-foot Steinway in the old way, directly facing the orchestra, you could tell that this was going to be a real conversation, complete with furious demands, animated admonitions, and a little bloodsport between instrument and orchestra. The voluminous Beethoven strings began sawing away, and the emotion that was missing from the Wagner materialized for the this piece.

After intermission, the crowd might have begun to wonder, as I wondered, what the orchestra would do with a rigorously modern piece like Webern's Fünf Sätze. The orchestra exceeded expectations here, performing with confidence in the shadow of Schoenberg Hall and the attendant UCLA ghosts of Schoenberg himself. The snowy-haired Entremont (the photo of him at the Times site is hilarious--it's one you might use for an obit, but not one for a vibrant, active 75-year-old man) knew his way around the work as he might know the voice of an old friend, and perhaps conducted with more love than for any other work.

We see Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony quite a bit in LA, usually the stand-alone second half of a program. Here as the mere conclusion to the B side of the concert it might have made for tedium, but these Munich musicians are very game workers, and they made their way through without incident.

A lagniappe scherzo from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream concluded the enormous program and discharged the audience from their two-plus hours into a fine westside misty night.

Some of the fun of going to classical concerts these days is comparing notes with other media, and fully half the fun is taking something of the past with you into your twenty-first century city; I took the scherzo and the Beethoven especially as I sauntered along the familiar brickwork of the campus and back to Gayley and home.

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