In a radio speech given by Sir Thomas Beecham to celebrate Jean Sibelius’ 90th birthday in 1955, the conductor praised the Finnish composer’s tenacity in pursuing his personal musical vision – even if that meant, as Beecham sardonically noted, that the music would go “rather over the head of [...] the public and [...] musical press”. But the British conductor also expressed his admiration for the composer’s earlier work, before Sibelius pared away the excesses of the 19th-century Romanticism in which his music was deeply rooted. In these works, Beecham felt, Sibelius “really lets himself go”.

Gil Shaham © Luke Ratray
Gil Shaham
© Luke Ratray

The composer shows no signs of being afraid of letting himself go in his 1904 Violin Concerto, maybe a bit too much, as he cropped the work considerably in a revised edition the following year. But even so, the broad Tchaikovskian melodies, orchestral brilliance, and the flamboyance of the violin solo remain; starkly at odds with the reticent and cryptic composer of Tapiola and The Tempest.

Gil Shaham, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s guest conductor at its 11 July concert, seized on the music’s splashiness; giving his instrument a rigorous workout that was aided and abetted by tight ensemble work and some extra splashiness of its own from the Los Angeles Philharmonic under guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Deftly navigating the concerto’s misty lyricism and, in the finale, boisterous rhythms, Shaham managed that rare feat in performances of the old warhorses – saying something new and fresh in a work one thought known well.

Freshness, too, characterized Tilson Thomas’ take on the Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 4. It was dramatic, powerful, but never hysterical. The opening fanfare was sonorous, regal; segueing seamlessly into the movement’s main stage where turbulence clashes with aloofness, and where somberness quickly turns to glee, despair, joy, and then turns back again. Thomas’ balletic grace in the first movement’s ghostly waltz, as well as the mordant wit and color of the scherzo, was a reminder of how audacious it was long ago for a composer to open up the “pure” world of the symphony to influences from the theatre. The theatricality of the same movement’s anguished climax was given its head, though never allowed to descend into self-pity. Emotional Tchaikovsky, but always in control and, as in the finale, maintaining an aristocratic bearing even among the peasant joy of the movement’s swirling scales and crashing cymbals. There was a trace, however faintly, of a kind of Malerian coolness and irony in Tilson Thomas’ Tchaikovsky. A residue of his conducting of the Austrian’s “Resurrection” Symphony earlier that week, perhaps? Whatever it was, it worked.

Opening the program was a brief chip by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Dubinushka, which was given a cheerful, rollicking performance that belied its inspiration in the angry, widespread protests of the 1905 Russian Revolution. It was the kind of work that made you wonder why you don’t hear it often – and the performance was the kind that spoiled you for any other performance you may ever hear.