Last night's concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic could almost have been labeled "Hollywood Comes to the Kennedy Center," particularly the second half, in which Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was followed by Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet."
The program contained nearly two hours of music without a single note by a German-speaking composer, a single stand-alone slow movement in the classical style or, for that matter, a single work that could be called a symphony. Under the skilled and glamorous baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, the Philharmonic emphasized the most crowd-pleasing elements in music -- bright sound, soaring melodies and energetic rhythm.
It was rewarded with an audience that nearly filled the Concert Hall and applauded lustily after each number -- even Aaron Copland's spiky Orchestral Variations, which opened the evening. The Copland was the chief exception to the Hollywood flavor of the evening, although it is based on a motif that might remind some listeners of the musical dialogue at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The program also included Stravinsky's "Petrushka," which was once considered radical but has now become part of the classical Top-40.
If such a program has any definable goal beyond that of selling lots of tickets, it must be to make an audience gasp at an orchestra's sheer prowess. Thomas and the Philharmonic provided plenty of grounds for gasping; it is a fine orchestra, and on a good evening (of which last night was one) it can sometimes outplay the orchestras from Boston, Cleveland, New York or Philadelphia when they are feeling slightly below par. But on this visit at least, it provided no substantial evidence of what it can do with older music in the Viennese classical tradition.
Equally gaspworthy was the playing of pianist Ilana Vered in the Rachmaninoff. This music tests nearly every aspect of a pianist's musicianship and technique, and Vered seems to have it all -- from great, smashing chords in which the keyboard absorbs every ounce of the player's weight to light filigree passages in which dozens of notes per second seem to leap from the piano. She can make the instrument growl as well as sing, and she has a nice sense of when to depart from rhythmic regularity into the little pauses and rushes that bring the music to life. She was briefly outbalanced by the orchestra once or twice, but not in any passages where it really mattered.
Thomas is a dashing, energetic figure on the podium -- and off it occasionally, when he has both feet in the air. He controls the orchestra with precision. One suspects that he was most interested in the Copland, but he did full justice to everything on the program, emphasizing the dramatic tensions that abound in the music and shaping the Tchaikovsky love theme into a statement of ripe romantic richness.