Lionel Bringuier is back, and the L.A. Phil welcomes one of its own

A key reason for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s success is an emphasis, uncommon for orchestras, on family values, along with an unusual history of peaceful and caring transfer of power.

The new year in Walt Disney Concert Hall began with appearances by the orchestra’s former Hollywood Bowl Music Director Bramwell Tovey and its former Music Director Zubin Mehta, welcomed back here with open arms (unlike at Mehta’s other former U.S. orchestra, the New York Philharmonic). The musicians played their hearts out for him.

After current Music Director Gustavo Dudamel returns next week to celebrate his 36th birthday with the orchestra, rising star associate conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, now music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony in England, will have L.A. dates in March. A festival mounted for L.A. Phil conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen follows the next month. 

This week, it is the return of the orchestra’s prodigal son, Lionel Bringuier, who all but grew up with the L.A. Phil during the last decade, first as a 20-year-old assistant conductor to Salonen, then to Dudamel, and finally the post of resident conductor. In 2012, he became music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, one of Switzerland’s most important ensembles.

His inaugural concert in Zürich saw a standing ovation led by Salonen (who wrote a major new piece for the occasion), Dudamel, Frank Gehry and top L.A. Phil administrators, something surely unprecedented in orchestra life.

A prestigious recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon resulted in magnificent, color-drenched live recordings of Ravel’s complete orchestral works, including the two piano concertos with Yuja Wang as spectacular soloist. Bringuier brought L.A. Phil ideas to his traditional orchestra in Zürich, including appointing a composer as creative chair.

But rather than Bringuier not being ready for the Tonhalle, I suspect Switzerland is not ready for him. His contract has not been renewed past the next season.

At 30, Bringuier may no longer appear quite the same eagerly boyish young conductor who first so charmed L.A. But the charm is still there. So too the enthusiasm.

Bringuier’s Russian program Thursday night in Disney Hall felt especially a family affair, as it showed what all the fuss is about. It began with Mussorgsky’s showy “Night on Bald Mountain” and Prokofiev’s moody Second Violin Concerto, for which the soloist was yet another old L.A. Phil friend, Gil Shaham, who appears here at least once a year. After intermission came a theatrically vibrant and warmly played performance of “Petrushka,” one of the Stravinsky early ballet scores that are central to the L.A. Phil’s identity.

Color and dramatic character were notable aspects of Bringuier’s Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. “Night on Bald Mountain” came across less as the soundtrack for a spooky satanic midnight ritual than a roller-coaster ride happily taken by thrill seekers. Bringuier brought out phrases, clipped and sudden, as revelations of another new vista.

Few orchestras feel as at home with “Petrushka” as the L.A. Phil, which first performed it in 1922, 11 years after the ballet had its Paris premiere and just three years after the orchestra was formed. Ours is the town Stravinsky lived in the longest; the L.A. Phil is the orchestra he got to know best and recorded with most (under the name Columbia Symphony). Pierre Monteux, who conducted the “Petrushka” premiere, became music director of the San Francisco Symphony and appeared regularly in L.A.

“Petrushka” on Thursday night felt like home. Bringuier did no forcing. He trusted the musicians, and the many instrumental solos, particularly the major role for the piano (another star turn for Joanne Pearce Martin), were illuminating. He emphasized the Stravinsky’s rich color palette. He happily stirred the rhythmic pot when it came time for exciting crowd scenes, sassy Russian dances and big-deal climaxes, all the while maintaining a fine line between the peasant pathos and urbane incredulity of a story in which a puppet comes to life, lucklessly seeks love and loses his wooden head.

The Prokofiev concerto was even more a family affair. Shaham here proved a kind of puckish Petrushka. Rather than stand in wooden formality as he plays, the violinist loves to engage with conductor and orchestra, dashing around the stage, grinning widely when something goes right, which is pretty much all the time.

His tone is silken and alluring, but slender, making Shaham almost like a violinist in the orchestra with an especially important part. There are balletic and pathetic aspects to this score as well (it is contemporary and in spirit of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”), and dance was exquisitely seconded and evoked by Bringuier.

Bringuier’s own career dance may have taken an unexpected turn in Zurich. But there is little question that he’s got the much more valuable support of an understanding family in L.A. that knows he’s going places.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Price: $59 to $195

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.org 

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