A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Kurt Masur and Sarah Chang

It’s hard to believe that 83-year-old Kurt Masur, the renowned past conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, London Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestras, has never conducted in Disney Hall. So, it seems odd to talk about him making his Disney Hall debut, but that’s what he did on March 24, presenting a program of warhorses, including The Hebrides Overture (aka Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26 by Mendelssohn and the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 by Brahms with soloist Sarah Chang, and concluding with the Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 by Dvorak.

Looking frail with tremors in both hands, which probably accounts for why he didn’t use a baton, Masur showed how most of what a conductor does with an orchestra occurs before the actual performance. Perhaps because of Masur’s frail condition (he often had to hold on to the podium rail with one hand), he moved very little. At times he didn’t move at all, demonstrating that a world-class orchestra like the LA Phil doesn’t really need much in the way of direction. But, however little Masur was animated on the podium, the interpretations were distinctly his and distinctly outstanding. In fact, I don’t think one could hear better interpretations or performances of all three works.  The sound Masur got from the LA Phil was simply divine: the strings sounded lush, the woodwinds were silky, the brass were warm and not too loud, and the timpani fit like a glove.

The weakest part of the program was Sarah Chang’s playing. She certainly looked good, in what can only be described as a glittery, gold-striped flamenco dress, but her playing was disappointing. One could still see the vestiges of her technical prowess, but her sound was shrill and the vibrato was too fast. Most of all, her tone lacked the warm and rich sound demanded by the Brahms. And her demeanor on stage — at times dancing, moving back and forth sometimes almost too close to the second chair violinist’s music stand, and arching her back — distracted from the music. It’s almost as if the dress and her behavior on stage were meant as a distraction. Fortunately, her performance didn’t prevent Masur and the LA Phil from keeping up their end of the bargain. It’s easy for orchestras to overplay in concertos like the Brahms, but Masur held the reigns tightly, allowing the audience to hear Chang, for better or worse.

Sadly, many left after intermission and missed a lush and glorious rendition of the Dvorak offered up by Masur and the LA Phil with an outstanding individual performance by LA Phil principal flutist David Buck.

Masur clearly appreciated the LA Phil’s playing as he applauded and blew kisses to the orchestra. He must know what we Angelenos know: We’re very lucky to have such an orchestra.

Only two days after the St. Petersburg Philharmonic orchestra played in Disney Hall, Thursday’s concert offered an opportunity to compare the two orchestras. I must say, the LA Phil seemed to me to be the more polished orchestra, although maybe it is just that they know how to play Disney Hall and have had much more practice doing so. It was also an opportunity to compare the techniques and interpretations of two elder statesmen of the podium, Masur and Yuri Temirkanov. Interestingly, perhaps for different reasons, both maestros moved very little on the podium. But both had complete control over their orchestras. There were differences, however. At least in the Brahms Fourth, Temirkanov played faster than usual tempos, whereas Masur kept the tempos of all the works on his program, but especially the Dvorak, on the slower side.

All in all, it has been a good week in LA for concertgoers.

This concert repeats Saturday and Sunday. Visit www.laphil.com for tickets and information.