After Osmo Vänskä's brief weekend visit for a two-concert set with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it still felt there was work left to do. Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor did not open well. The orchestra and Vänskä were not quite on the same page for the iconic explosion and Inon Barnatan was overmatched in size and power throughout the first movement. Barnatan's illuminating flights of poetic impulse in those patches that Brahms allows the pianist along the way seemed at odds with Vänskä's notion of the movement's overall arc. 

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Osmo Vänskä
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Vänskä's watchful precision – he only stepped in when necessary to sculpt or encourage – made him not only a very entertaining but an informative conductor to watch. After the opening tutti came together when Barnatan entered, he was not quite aligned with the orchestra and Vänskä suddenly pivoted and focused on the pianist's hands to bring pianist and orchestra back in sync. Barnatan came into his own in the slow movement's grandeur and poetry and dazzled in the finale which Vänskä helped bring home with such relentless fury that the full house at Walt Disney Concert Hall exploded into cheers and applause as if Barnatan were a hometown hero. They were rewarded with Egon Petri's arrangement of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze as an encore. 

The world premiere of Donghoon Shin's 17-minute Upon His Ghostly Solitude, which the South Korean composer calls "a love letter to Yeats and Berg", resonated with depictions of terror and despair from Yeats' poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen and Alban Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces. The tuba positioned front and center in the middle of the orchestra, the big brass section surrounding it, the four percussionists and the double basses with either five strings or low C extensions signified this would be an orchestral showpiece and the music didn't disappoint. Its Straussian contexts were painted with broad brush strokes and glowing colors strewn with with feverish snatches of a march or waltz as grim reminders that the music is about time and war. After the first movement scuttled away, the second was a marvelous study in pianissimo in the cello and double basses; the third, its occasional riffs including a splendid violin solo, spiraled towards the end with superb Mahlerian gestures. 

After Shin's mono bloc intensity, the pure and clean sound universe of Sibelius' Third Symphony, its sounds of nature and cool flowing waters, came forth from the Phil with the sonic glory that had been missing in the Brahms. Vänskä created a sense of vast orchestral quiet out of which the long crescendo back to the opening subject in the first movement was a thing of awesome beauty. The second movement was almost painfully deliberate, but deliciously so, with the flutes in their little universe, and Vänskä's ability to ratchet up in gradual increments the excitement of the last movement was wonderfully addictive.