By Truman C. Wang
The L.A. Phil has been lucky to have a number of fine guest conductors sharing the podium. The latest one, hailing from Finland, was Santtu-Matias Rouvali whom I would best describe as a combination of Gustavo Dudamel and Harpo Marx in his bushy hair and zany style. It was quite a memorable and comical entrance actually, as Rouvali darted out from the wings in his long tail and equally long baton, grinning from ear to ear, and twirled around the podium like a circus clown before settling down to the musical task at hand. As in a Marx Brothers movie, one almost expected a phalanx of paraphernalia, like a blowtorch or a goat, to fall out of his oversized coat jacket. The zany hilarity of the visuals also extended to Rouvali’s conducting – tap-dancing around on the podium and exaggerated baton waving on every pianissimo and fortissimo passage.
If Rouvali wanted to upstage his mentor Dudamel in the visual department then he succeeded admirably. Musically, the 31-year-old Finn still has ways to go. Mosolov’s big, brash, locomotive-sounding Iron Foundry was the first and probably the best work heard in the evening. It suited the conductor’s equally outsized personality. Dvorak’s Cello Concerto missed much of its warm nostalgia flavor from the brisk tempo and muted emotions. The fabulous L.A. Phil woodwinds and horns nonetheless made stellar contributions in the first movement and the andante. German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser gave a valiant performance of the concerto, squeezing out as much feeling and lyricism as he could under the circumstances. But Mr. Moser should have left well enough alone. His politically-motivated encore of Bach’s Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 1, dedicating to Hillary Clinton and the late Leonard Cohen, was met with enthusiastic applause and a few boos. It was a vapid, calculated reading much like a lot of Ms. Clinton’s campaign speeches.
The L.A. Phil’s 17 years with former Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen (now Conductor Laureate) has firmly instilled Sibelius in its blood. The music seems to flow on tap as naturally as does Gershwin or other works of Americana. It is impossible to hear a bad Sibelius performance by the L.A. Phil under any conductor, experienced or not. A Ferrari is still a Ferrari no matter who’s at the wheel. Therefore, one could say the mostly brilliant performance of the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 was due in large part to the orchestra’s long pedigree in the music, despite maestro Rouvali’s several attempts at throttling the warmth and momentum of the music with his rather bombastic hijinks.
Truth be told, it was a concert to remember, if for all the wrong reasons.