Faced with a well-meaning but unbalanced program, Susanna Mälkki, Leila Josefowicz and the Los Angeles Philharmonic did the best they could. But neither the beloved British composer Oliver Knussen's Flourish with Fireworks, written for the opening concert of Michael Tilson Thomas's tenure with the London Symphony in 1988, nor his Violin Concerto, written in 2002 and 2003 for Pinchas Zukerman, is on the verge of outliving their original function as splendidly-written showpieces for musical tastes and colleagues from another time; besides, at less than half an hour of music, they could have slipped in something more substantial. After an interval which seemed interminably long, Beethoven saved the evening with what turned out to be, in the hands of LA Phil and the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, a highly entertaining Eroica-lite which was just the thing for Sunday afternoon ears.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

When a composer like Knussen, who not only knew but enjoyed the orchestra more than most, asks for a large orchestra that includes five percussionists, a pianist playing celesta and glockenspiel, and three flutes, it is no surprise that from the ominous opening swells to its laidback ending, Flourish with Fireworks sports a lot of outrageous color and noise. It was a friend's tribute to the American energy MTT would bring to the LSO, and the LA Phil had the right stuff to use it to fill Disney Hall to its farthest reaches.

The performance of Knussen's Violin Concerto had a special poignant overtone to it in that it was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony whose music director at the time was Mariss Jansons, who died at the end of November. Its 20 minutes provided Josefowicz a dazzling showcase of wonderful of things to do. She floated a sublime, ethereal line against low strings in Aria, the middle of three movements played without pause, then ripped gloriously into double stops in the Gigue. The Philharmonic showed off its brass, the French horns galumphing at the end. Altogether it was the sort of music Gerard Hoffnung might have composed if he had ever held a serious music festival.

Mälkki's Eroica was moderately fast, lightly inflected, with a fresh inevitability about it that at times verged on being too inevitable. She took the first movement repeat which is always a good sign, and asked the musicians only to modify phrases here and there, add a few subtle dynamic shadings, and to cruise through conventional rhetorical flourishes as if there were no conventions to follow; in the process their playing imparted a healthy glow to music which is often thought of as heavy and slow. Mälkki took the Marcia funebre not fast but almost in cut time, and set a nice relaxed jog to the triplets in the major section. In the Trio of a fast, slightly breathless Scherzo, the horns played beautifully, pure of tone and perfectly in tune. In fact, the orchestra didn't catch its breath until it roused itself for the final explosion which they brought, and the audience along with them, down the home stretch to a thrilling conclusion.

****1