The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s January 20 concert, the last in its “Focus on Eötvös” mini-residency, may as well have been called “Focus on Hungary.” The small, landlocked country, with barely over 9 million residents, has exerted – and continues to exert – a powerful influence on music. Even discounting Franz Liszt – ethnically Hungarian, but with a cultural outlook more tilted to Vienna and Paris than to Budapest – there is no disputing Hungary’s vast, even outsize contribution to musical culture.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Felix Broede
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Felix Broede

The concert could also have been called “Focus on Pablo Heras-Casado”, the orchestra’s guest conductor for the Eötvös series. The 35-year-old Spaniard, who currently serves as the principal conductor of the Orchestra of St Luke’s and has been trained under Pierre Boulez, knew how to leave his mark on the audience.

The bright colors and wacky humor of Zoltán Kodaly’s Háry János Suite were a snug fit for Heras-Casado’s talents. Kodály’s fairytale unfolded before the listener in bold, brash tones – and the finale was probably loud enough to be heard all the way in Union Station. But Heras-Casado also demonstrated that he is a master of subtlety, eliciting gorgeous, soft-woven playing in the “Song” movement. With the cimbalom’s pungent overtones soaring over a tapestry of velvet string pedal tones, it was playing as gorgeous and rapt in the movement as has ever been heard on or off records.

If the Kodály saw the conductor gleefully letting his orchestra off its leash, he kept it tightly controlled in the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra that closed the program. There was no sense of the music being pushed. Instead the score spoke for itself. His take on the first movement was more monolithic than heroic; his Elegia speaking of tearless grief rather than anguished heartbreak. The wry wit of the Giucco delle coppie was rendered with enviable piquancy, though the Intermezzo interrotto was decidedly poker-faced. But in the finale’s jubilant stretto, the bristling energy that marked Heras-Casado at the concert’s start returned with gusto.

Sandwiched uncomfortably between these two works was Eötvös’s wispy violin concerto, DoReMi, dedicated to and played by Midori (the work’s title is a play on her name).

The composer’s opera, Angels in America, had elicited mixed reviews earlier in the week, most pointing out the work’s pervasive dullness. The concerto, sadly, was no improvement, despite some delicious and imaginative use of microtonality. Emerging from the darkness with some ghostly tintinnabulation – as if Kodály’s “Viennese Musical Clock” was recalled through a surrealist haze – the work skitters and whispers along three compact movements, with some subdued electric amplification of Midori’s instrument. One wondered why the amplification was necessary as she could have easily cut through the concerto’s small orchestra without its aid. She played with strength, precision, and passion – characteristics missing in the work itself.

Eötvös is a much better composer than was on display last week. One only wished that works more representative of the best and most intriguing facets of his musical voice were programmed. As it was, the listener’s focus was anywhere but on Eötvös.