It can be rough returning to work after a holiday break and I suppose that’s as true for musicians as it is anyone else. So perhaps it’s to be expected that the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first performance of the new year on Thursday was uncharacteristically rough and tumble. It also was a reminder that even though the Liszt bicentennial is over, the composer's music and influence continue even after the anniversary. The program, conducted by the L.A. Philharmonic’s former Assistant Conductor and the Fort Worth Symphony’s current music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, was packed full of late 19th-century Romantic warhorses. It’s all very pretty stuff with lots of dramatic flair, but it can be unforgiving as well if not reigned in a bit at the margins. The evening started off with the L.A. Phil’s first ever performance of Dvorak’s Hussite Overture, a piece of nationalistic music written for an official occasion in Dvorak’s own Prague. When these unfamiliar older pieces of music creep up on orchestral programs, things can break one of two ways: either one thinks “Gee, I wonder why this isn’t performed more often” or it can be more like “Oh, now I understand why we haven’t heard that before.” And while the Hussite Overture is unmistakably Dvorak’s, it fits more closely into the latter category, suffused with just enough pomp to classify it as what my friend Ben calls circus music.
This rather broad and sloppy intro was followed by Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which featured soloist and long-time L.A. Philharmonic friend Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Liszt’s fiery fingerwork was neatly dispatched by Thibaudet who availed himself admirably here. The sloppiness continued, though, with some serious tuning problems from the winds in the opening moments. Things eventually got straightened out but Liszt’s cacophony of notes did little to dispel the circus atmosphere. Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, which the composer dedicated to his friend Liszt who had died that same year, builds closely on Liszt’s own Romantic musical traditions. It’s almost always a crowd pleaser and its bombastic finish was warmly appreciated by many. Harth-Bedoya was able to bring out several moments of quiet lyrical playing from the orchestra that came as islands in a sea of blurry edges. So for the first concert back on the job, there were still some worthwhile moments, even if it wasn’t likely the best evening of the new year. The show repeats three times this weekend.