The most consistently admirable thing about Esa-Pekka Salonen's concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center was the young conductor's set of tails. Perfectly fitted and cut ingeniously, they disguised how short Salonen's waist is and made him seem taller than he is. Blond and boyishly handsome, he is the perfect music director for the orchestra of a city that celebrates youth, glamour and beauty and whose chief business is the creation and marketing of illusions.
But this maddeningly uneven program of Witold Lutoslawski (the East Coast premiere of the distinguished Polish composer's Fourth Symphony), Sibelius (the Second Symphony) and Ravel (the Piano Concerto in G Major with soloist Olli Mustonen) raised questions about the suitability of the 34-year-old Salonen as musical chief of one of the world's important orchestras.
The Sibelius symphony is one of those works usually deemed conductor-proof, but Salonen's reading left the impression of details unconnected by a musical line. It was a razzle-dazzle performance -- the scherzo was taken at an amazing clip in which every note was heard -- that nevertheless suggested more about the conductor than the composer. The scherzo was interrupted, for example, by an obtrusively sudden and over-extended pause before the slow central section. It was as if the conductor announced, "Now something lyrical is about to occur," and the self-indulgent manner in which he caressed the oboe tune only distracted from the music's line.
The worst came in the last movement, which contains the symphony's only interpretive hurdle. The trick here is to keep this ardent music in check, leaving something in reserve for the heroic coda. Salonen announced the theme of the finale so over-emphatically, however, that the rest of the movement was anti-climactic.
The performance of the Ravel concerto was dreadful. Mustonen is a pianist whose feeling for this exquisitely songful work seemed limited to the ingenious choreography produced by his hands -- when they were in the air, not on the keys -- and to the wistful duet they occasionally played with the his impressively full, poetic-looking head of hair. His sound was so brittle and shallow that, despite the concerto's considerate instrumentation, his playing was often covered by the orchestra. And on the one occasion he played loudly, he drowned out the slow movement's important English horn solo. Salonen's accompaniment seemed better suited for Stravin sky than for Ravel.
What made the concert most infuriating, however, is that Salonen is clearly an enormous talent. His beat is absolutely clear, his vocabulary of expressive gestures is large and he is an inspirational leader. One had the feeling that the Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians, who played superbly throughout the afternoon, would have walked off a cliff if Salonen had asked.
And only a conductor of genuine accomplishment could have led so persuasive a performance of the Lutoslawski symphony. This 20-minute work in two continuous movements possesses enormous eloquence and gravity. The opening is almost unbearably beautiful -- a lyrical melody set out by clarinet and flute against a gentle heartbeat provided by timpani and strings. The unfolding of that melody is interrupted throughout the first movement in unpredictable and intriguing ways. And it is followed by a longer movement in which an even graver and even more beautiful cantabile theme -- set off against all manner of brilliantly colored instrumental interludes -- leads inexorably to a tremendous emotional climax.
If the Lutoslawski is an accessible work, however, it makes fearsome demands upon an orchestra. That Salonen was able to inspire his musicians to play it as if their lives depended on it suggests that he is more -- much more -- than just a pretty face.