Music review: James Conlon, L.A Phil relish snippets of Schulhoff

James Conlon
Los Angeles Times

James Conlon leads the L.A. Philharmonic through an energetic fragment of Erwin Schulhoff's Symphony No. 5 Scherzo. Garrick Ohlsson shines in a Mozart piano concerto.

By Richard S. Ginell

With some time to kill between performances of "Lucia di Lammermoor" at Los Angeles Opera (the last one is Sunday), the peripatetic James Conlon merely had to cross 1st Street in order to lead the first of three subscription concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night.

It's hardly news that Conlon seems to be everywhere these days, but it's still a phenomenon worth noting. Indeed, Conlon turned up at the pre-concert lecture and later spent several minutes talking to the audience in the main hall about one of his Recovered Voices subjects: the strange, sad and remarkable career of Erwin Schulhoff.

The Czech-born Schulhoff may have been the most interesting of all the composers who perished in the concentration camps of World War II.

He was by turns a Dadaist (his 1919 silent piece "In futurum" beat Cage's famous "4'33" to the punch by 33 years), then a jazz fetishist, then a Marxist (he wrote an oratorio whose title, "Das kommunistische Manifest," speaks for itself), completed six symphonies, a wonderfully surreal opera, "Flammen," and much more.

For this concert, though, Conlon turned his spotlight on another side of Schulhoff: the Scherzo from his Symphony No. 5. It's a terrific piece of thunderous, aggressive, angry, relentlessly churning writing; if anything, it bears a striking resemblance in mood and means to the Scherzo of Walton's Symphony No. 1, a neglected (on this side of the Atlantic) masterpiece written around the same time (the 1930s).

Conlon has recorded the complete symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, but the L.A. Phil took to the Scherzo with even greater relish at even faster speeds.

So why not play the whole 35-minute symphony? One can only speculate that it might have delivered too much angst at the top of the evening; the first movement is just as relentless, the second and fourth movements less so though still grim and dramatic. However, the fragment that Conlon did play went over well, so maybe we'll hear the whole thing someday in a different context.

After Schulhoff's fulminations, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 seemed disarmingly genteel at first, but that impression was eventually dispelled by pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who delivered a civilized yet virile performance. Everything sang, yet Ohlsson's touch gave each note a solidity and definition. The program noted that the cadenzas were by the pianist Radu Lupu — as such, they were right in the style.

One might have been tempted to think, another concert, another Brahms Symphony No. 1, but Conlon was having none of that routine.

From the vigorous sharp accents in the first movement, this rendition had energy, solid rhythm and dramatic thrust. Conlon could make the phrases breathe in the second movement and answer each other in the third; the opening of the fourth movement had real mystery, and the rest was magnificently paced. This was a distinguished performance that achieved something rare nowadays; it made Brahms' First sound fresh again.