After a busy week of proclamations and promises, the mere fact of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s opening program might be deemed a time for relaxation, a return to business-as-usual. It was anything but, however; the warhorses galloped across the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s stage like frisky colts, sending the orchestra’s 79th season off to a flying start.
Aaron Copland’s flamboyant “El salon Mexico” began the program; four short tone poems by Jan Sibelius, illuminating episodes from the Finnish epic poem “Kalevala,” ended it: works highly dissimilar in sound, yet alike in their obsession with musical picture-painting. High-quality performances of Sibelius’ music might be taken as a given under the baton of the Finnish-born Esa-Pekka Salonen; actually, his musical outlooks — as suggested by his own music — may be closer to the peppery high jinks, the jangling in-your-face scoring of Copland’s delicious conceit.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto was the major offering, a killer virtuoso exercise recently elevated to chart status through its cinematic career as centerpiece for “Shine,” but penciled in for this week’s Philharmonic long before the film’s release. Dysfunctional pianist David Helfgott — on whose career the film is shakily based — had muddled through the work at a forgettable Hollywood Bowl stint last August; highly functional pianist Yefim Bronfman took back the work at the Music Center.
Bronfman, conductor Salonen’s pianist of choice for several recent concert appearances and recordings, managed to winnow out the concerto’s admittedly slim fund of serious musical value, while honoring its technical demands that seem to have been fashioned with 20-fingered pianists in mind.
Managing director-designate Willem Wijnbergen, whose accession next March to the post long held by Ernest Fleischmann was announced earlier in the week, had already flown home to continue running Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He has so far heard his new charge only once, at Wednesday’s pre-season opener (dainty warblings by Kathleen Battle, chestnuts from the Salonen repertory, lead-ins secondary in importance to the ensuing gala sit-down dinner).
Wijnbergen comes in at a dazzling moment in the Philharmonic’s history, with echoes of last season’s worldwide triumph (including a total conquest of seemingly unconquerable Parisian audiences) still resounding and critics revising their 10-best lists to relocate the orchestra somewhere close to the top. All that remains is the ultimate assurance that the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the orchestra’s much-needed new home across the street from the Chandler, will eventually loom large on the Los Angeles cultural skyline — as its orchestra already has.