To nail down assurances for its 87th sesh, the third in its acclaimed new quarters at Disney Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays it super-safe. A series cutely titled “Beethoven Unbound,” which runs through the season — culminating with the mighty Ninth on May 13 — lists all the symphonies, “unbound” by having sharply contrasting contemporary works juxtaposed beside them on each program. The season’s opening weekend followed that pattern: the first two of the Beethoven series with, betwixt and between, an 8-year-old French orchestral showpiece. Beethoven won hands down.
That there was no contest was obvious, in fact, from the first soft harmonies of the Beethoven First Symphony, that famously tricky beginning in the “wrong” key that only later settles down in the “proper” C-major. Under an obviously rested EsaPekka Salonen, the Philharmonic filled its marvelous venue with the heavenly soft harmonies of an orchestra in perfect balance and went on to deliver Beethoven’s journeyman concoction as a work of small-scale delight and good humor.
To conclude the program came the Second Symphony of a few years later, louder and more aggressive music from a composer well on his way toward the distinctiveness he would soon achieve, in a performance under Salonen that nicely underscored its differences.
In between came music by the 89-year-old Henri Dutilleux, still active in his native France and strongly supported by an active partisanship. His 21-minute “The Shadows of Time,” scored for a large orchestra including a considerable percussion contingent and, for one passing moment, the sound of three children’s voices (said to represent “the spirit of Anne Frank and all the innocents of the world”) is a vast panorama of haunting, powerful sound.
It is, similarly, a kind of panorama of other French music of Dutilleux’ time; Ravel plays a part, and so does the insistent, throbbing harmonies of Messiaen. Whether any of this succeeded in exerting an “unbinding” effect on the straight lines and exhilarating originality of the Beethoven symphonies on either side at last Friday’s concert is a matter better left to the individual listener, one by one.