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[Classical Music] The maestro takes over

New Philharmonic director delivers a commanding opening performance

K.W. Jeter

It’s easy to believe that symphonic music begins and ends with the 19th century. Sure, once in a while there’s a glance over the shoulder toward Mozart, standing in for the whole Classical (rather than Romantic) period, and sometimes even further past to Bach. But in general, when orchestral programming is done, the familiar (and perhaps even overfamiliar) warhorses get trotted out of the same barn. David Itkin, the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s new director, deserves the standing ovation he received at the conclusion of his debut performance last Friday, for making so much that was old seem fresh and exciting again.

Maestro Itkin’s approach was evident from the opener, Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture,” a concert staple if there ever was one. When hanging out with one’s old buddies, the temptation is to relax and take it easy.  For a conductor, that usually means setting one’s baton on autopilot, making sure the big melodies get heard (always plenty of those in the standard repertoire) and letting a big wave of sound wash over the audience. Itkin took a riskier approach, with his fully charged-up orchestra precisely delineating the inner structure of the piece.  The brass sections, with razor-sharp attacks and ensemble playing, were particularly impressive.

Perhaps even too impressive; it’s no surprise that it will take a while for the new conductor to come to grips with the lackluster acoustics of UNLV’s Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall. (The Smith Center can’t be built Downtown any time too soon.) The Ham’s treble dial seems set permanently at 11, leaving the orchestra’s cellos and double basses way too low in the mix, until some delicate pizzicato work in the Mendelssohn violin concerto that formed the concert’s centerpiece. It helped that guest soloist Kiril Laskarov was on Itkin’s wavelength, rendering a kitsch-free, cleanly melodic interpretation of another frequent visitor to concert programs. The Mendelssohn isn’t one of the repertoire’s hyper-dramatic and antagonistic concertos, with the solo instrument and the orchestra battling and snarling at each other; instead, the violin’s supportive, even caressing interaction gave the orchestra opportunities to shine. The inner movements’ chorale-like passages for the lower strings and the woodwinds were small masterpieces, delicate and impassioned at the same time.

That the Ham can be tamed was evident in the concert’s endpiece, Brahms’ second symphony. Again, Itkin took the precise and revealing approach to another symphonic staple, but all the orchestra’s sections could be heard to full effect, impressively so in the final movement’s race to the finish.

Given the virtually sold-out house for Itkin’s debut, one of the hottest tickets in town will likely be for the LV Phil’s November 17 concert, when he’ll lead the orchestra into the 20th century with the Ravel piano concerto and a less familiar Shostakovich ballet suite. He’s already shown that he has the fundamentals of orchestral color and power well in hand; it should be exciting to hear what he and his musicians can do with some treasures from a little further out there.

Las Vegas Philharmonic

****

September 29

Artemus Ham Concert Hall

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