Salonen’s best moments, interestingly, came at the extreme ends of the scale. He was very good in the manic passages of the huge first movement, revving up hurricanes of sound just before the funeral march returned. He relaxed convincingly in the meditative midnight mood of the fourth movement, and he conjured some of the most lovely string playing to be heard from the Philharmonic in a long time in the lengthy, lyrical sixth movement.
Yet Salonen is not a natural Mahlerian; he seems uncomfortable with the Austrian idiom of lilting rhythm. Much of the time, he pressed forward nervously , running past opportunities to point out details and feel the pulse. Some climaxes were constructed beautifully; others were spoiled by slamming on the brakes too hard and then racing out of the slot. To his credit, Salonen tries to be his own man, searching for different ways to say old things. But the elements don’t flow together yet, and the overall effect was that of a patchwork.
The Philharmonic could be excused for less-than-immaculate ensemble through much of the 93-minute symphony, par-for-the-course on opening night after the September break. Yet a team of women from the Los Angeles Master Chorale, in tandem with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, sang with exceptional point and clarity in the brief fifth movement, unfazed by the hectic tempo. And mezzo-soprano Birgitta Svenden conveyed plenty of soulful compassion in the fourth movement.