By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Philharmonic; Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor
Overture; Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major (Jean-Yves Thibaudet,
Saint-Sans: Symphony No. 3 (Organ)
Friday at 11 a.m. Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next concerts: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Preconcert lectures by Alan Chapman at 7 p.m. and 1 p.m.,
Some concerts are notable for their profundity. Others stand
out for cutting-edge new music. Still others offer rarely heard masterworks.
And then there are those that do no more than offer solid, high-quality music,
expertly played. This weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic fit squarely in that
last category and that’s just fine, from my perspective.
None of the pieces played are at classical music’s apex (one
is such a rarity that the Phil has not played it before this weekend). However,
in the right hands all three can be thoroughly enjoyable — even stirring — and
this weekend’s performances are definitely in capable hands (feet, brains,
The concerts are also a homecoming for Miguel Harth-Bedoya,
who was the Phil’s assistant and then associate conductor from 1998-2004 and
who since 2000 has been music director of the Ft. Worth (Tex.) Symphony. Now
age 43, the Peruvian native has an athletic conducting style and alternates
between infectious grins and Zubin Mehta-like scowls (fortunately, more of the
former than the latter) on the podium. He led with solid assurance, and (an
occasional shoddy attack notwithstanding) the orchestra played at a high level
When an ensemble like the L.A. Phil is playing a 19th
century piece from a well-known composer for the first time, one has to wonder
if the work has any merit. Happily, Dvorak’s Hussite Overture, which opened the proceedings this morning, proved
to be a solid, if not extraordinary, 15-minute piece. It was obviously familiar
to Harth-Bedoya; he conducted it without a score.
Written in 1883 for the opening of Prague’s National
Theater, the overture was part of a trilogy of works based on the life of 15th
century Bohemian religious leader Jan Hus, and the two hymn-chorales used by
Dvorak helped provide a nice mixture of religiosity and stately celebration,
which Harth-Bedoya and the orchestra carried off well.
Unlike the Dvorak, the Phil first played Liszt’s Piano
Concerto No. 2 almost exactly 90 years ago (Jan. 14, 1921, to be exact) and has
performed it as recently as last summer in Hollywood Bowl (when Andr Watts was
the soloist). However, any time it brings pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet back to
the Disney Hall stage, it’s worth hearing again.
Most pianists emphasize the concerto’s thunder but Thibaudet
isn’t your average pianist. Although the Lyon native (who now lives in Los
Angeles) can produce plenty of pyrotechnics, what caught my ear were how
elegantly he handled the many poetic passages that alternate with the
fireworks. The interplay between Thibaudet and principal cellist Ben Hong was
particularly notable both for its musicality and also how closely the two were
looking at each other during what amounts to a duet.
After intermission came Saint-Sans Symphony No. 3,
popularly known as the “Organ Symphony” although it’s worth noting that the
title in French — Symphonie No. 3, “avec orgue” (with organ) — is a better way
of describing the 35-minute work. Happily both Harth-Bedoya and Joanne Pearce
Martin, the Phil’s principal keyboardist, chose that collegial emphasis.
Saint-Sans crafted this work imaginatively by taking the
standard four movements of a symphony and compressing them into two. The first
movement begins, as Alan Chapman said in his preconcert talk, with shimmering
strings that evoke Wagner’s Tristan und
The organ appears stealthly to begin the second section (of
the first movement) and Martin sensitive registrations made organ just one of
90+ instruments in the ensemble. Harth-Bedoya emphasized the strings’ lush
tones and the entire section was so spellbinding that the audience took quite
some time unwinding before the performance continued with the Allegro moderato.
The organ introduces the final Maestoso: Allegro section with a thunderous C-major chord and
Harth-Bedoya didn’t give away the surprise (for those who have never heard this
symphony). If he cued Martin at all, it was with a nearly imperceptible
movement or a lifted eyebrow, but he took charge immediately and introduced
some interesting tempo variations throughout the finale. Martin’s registrations
were still a model of rectitude — only in the final measures did the organ
finally emerge with full-throated vigor. I’ve never heard the registrations
done any better.
Any conductor lucky enough to conduct the L.A. Phil and its
superb pipe organ in the amazing Disney Hall acoustics must feel like he (or
she) is approaching heaven. At the end, Harth-Bedoya held the final chord for
as long as possible, seemingly unwilling to let go. I understand how he felt.
Creating a nice programming tie, Saint-Sans had dedicated
the symphony to Liszt, who had died shortly after the work was completed in
In an excess of compositional zeal, Saint-Sans included a
few measures of piano four hands in the final section. Joanne Pearce Martin’s
husband, Gavin, and noted local pianist Vicki Ray did the honors.
I met two ladies outside at intermission who told me they
had trained up from San Diego for the concert. We all basked in the 80-degree
sunshine beside the Delft-china fountain that Frank Gehry created in honor of
Lillian Disney. Ah, the joys of living in Southern California in January.
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.