Live Classical Music: The Los Angeles Philharmonic, conductor Pietar Inkinen and pianist Leon Fleisher at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

Young Finnish conductor Pietar Inkinen made his Hollywood Bowl debut Tuesday night with a program – reaching from Sibelius and Ravel to Tchaikovsky – virtually guaranteed to display his strikingly mature skills.

Start with the Ravel, the most intriguing composition on the program.  There’s a tendency to view works such as his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand as musical oddities, fascinating for the digital gymnastics they demand rather than for their intrinsic musical qualities.  Which was precisely what Ravel wanted to avoid when he composed the Concerto in the early ‘30s for Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who had lost his right arm in World War I combat.

“In a work of this kind,” Ravel observed, “it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands.”

And when Leon Fleisher dug into the Concerto’s opening cadenza Tuesday night, Ravel’s success in maintaining the virtuosic “texture” was immediately apparent.  As the piece continued, displaying other characteristics of his late works – his fascination with jazz and improvisation, his darkening creative view – one could only wish that it were heard more often, that it would be viewed far less (as it tends to be) as a kind of musical stunt.

Leon Fleishman

The choice of Fleisher as the artist to perform the Concerto could easily have been seen from that perspective.  Struck forty years ago by a neurological disease paralyzing fingers in his right hand, he set aside his stellar career as a piano soloist to concentrate on conducting, while occasionally performing the limited number of pieces for left hand only.  Then, early in the decade, he found a therapy that returned mobility to his right hand, and he returned to the standard piano repertoire.

Perhaps because of the rocky road Fleisher has traveled, perhaps because of Ravel’s determination to avoid the “stunt” potential, the combination of performer and composition came together in utterly compelling fashion.  True, the Bowl’s video screens tended to concentrate on the articulate movements of Fleisher’s left hand across the keyboard, But the performance, by soloist and the Philharmonic, thoroughly captured the richness of Ravel’s keyboard complexities, in solo passages, as well as the surprisingly rhapsodic blending of piano and orchestra.  Call it a combination that should be welcomed back for a more intimate presentation at Disney Hall.

Pietar Inkenin (photo by Tanja Ahola)

Also on the program, Sibelius’ Finlandia provided an opportunity for Inkinen to showcase his musical roots in his debut performance at the Bowl.  The results were sturdy, with Inkinen making the most of Sibelius’ lush, patriotic orchestration.

He was even better with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 – a kind of advance teaser for the Bowl’s weekend Tchaikovsky spectacular (although that program will be conducted by Bramwell Tovey, not Inkenin).  The 4th is a work brimful of spectacular moments and fascinating musical achievements, from the opening meeting with the destiny theme that courses through the Symphony, through the extraordinary pizzicato of the 3rd Movement to the grand emotional climaxes of the final movement.  Inkenin handled it all with élan and brio, superbly triggering the blend of virtuosity, passion and stunning accuracy that is the Philharmonic’s primary stock in trade, while simultaneously affirming his own rapidly rising star.

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