A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

On Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program featuring two works by Russian composers—the Eight Russian Folk Songs by Anatol Liadov and the Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 by Prokofiev with the Greek violist, Leonidas Kavakos, as soloist—and The Planets by Holst.

The Liadov pieces are charming orchestral miniatures featuring a Mozartian orchestra; and the LA Phil performed them beautifully, including some nice, if brief, solo passages by Concertmaster Bing Wang and Principal Bassoonist Whitney Crocket. But other than the fact that they are charming, they are pretty light fare. In addition to being Russian, perhaps they were chosen, in part, because they balanced out the dramatic and in-your-face version of The Planets that constituted the second half of the program.

Kavakos, who last performed with the LA Phil in May 2011, demonstrated why he was invited to return. He doesn’t have the flashiness of some soloists, but he nailed the Prokofiev, which is also scored for a Mozartian orchestra, with the addition of percussion. He deftly navigated the varied sonic terrain of the concerto with little apparent effort, and even though his playing was overshadowed at times by the orchestra, together they delivered a fine performance.

Sinaisky’s version of The Planets was a no-holds-barred treatment of a piece whose loud, dramatic sections can sometimes obscure the quieter, more ethereal moments, which indeed was the case on Saturday night. Sinaisky seemed more intent on blowing the audience out of their seats than on evoking the delicate, mystical and otherworldly moments in Venus, the Bringer of Peace, or Neptune, the Mystic. Even the beginning of Mars, the Bringer of War, started out louder than it probably should have to most effectively contrast the dynamics within that movement.

At its loudest, Sinaisky had the LA Phil play as loud, if not louder, than I’ve ever heard them. With the very low notes on the organ, at times the hall vibrated as if the earth itself was shaking. It was a bombastic performance that showed off most of the LA Phil’s players and instruments, including the organ. Special kudos go to Concertmaster Nathan Cole, Principal Horn Andrew Bain, Principal Cellist Tao Ni, and Joanne Pearce Martin on celesta. It’s hard not to deliver a knockout performance of The Planets, with such movements as Mars, the Bringer of War, which surely has served as the model for countless sci-fi movie film scores, and the always popular Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, both of which elicited applause from the audience. And Sinaisky didn’t disappoint.

At each performance this past weekend, concertgoers were given the opportunity to gaze at the planets and stars following the concert with telescopes provided by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and Sidewalk Astronomers — which is somewhat ironic because Holst’s piece was not astronomical at all, but astrological, which is why the individual movements don’t represent the planets for which they are named, but rather the characteristics of people born under them. Fortunately, however, composers don’t need to be scientific or critical thinkers to write beautiful, moving, and crowd-pleasing music.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA