03/21/2011 04:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jeremy Denk Meets Gustavo and Beethoven on the Hill at Mouse Hall

Every new music director comes to the LA Philharmonic and benefits from a legacy that is strong and intact. Since their formation nearly a century ago, the Philharmonic has been conducted by giants like Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, William Steinberg and Eduard van Beinum. They have always given everything they had. They do the same for their new director, Gustavo Dudamel. But he seemed ill at ease and uncertain Sunday afternoon in a program of Mozart and Beethoven.

The program began with Mozart's sad Masonic Funeral Music in a performance which hardly began to plumb the music's dimensionality but spread awe through the hall from the opening, Mr. Spock-ish measures when a brace of basset clarinetists, led by Michele Zukovsky, created sounds from another world.

The Beethoven was the First Piano Concerto with Jeremy Denk subbing for Martha Argerich. The result was anything but expected. While Denk tried heroically to pull the music into Beethoven's sphere, Gustavo seemed unaware of the excitement Denk was creating around him and always returned to safe tempos in the orchestral tuttis. It was a parallel universe thing, where each was doing his own thing, which had the effect of a classical music soap opera more than a real performance of anything. Gustavo didn't look Denk in the eye more than once or twice the entire night, except when they came onstage and when they departed.

The miracle of the performance was that everything Denk did, and he did a lot and very charismatically, was amplified by the cushy sound environment Dudamel created for him. And what Denk did, in addition to trying to pull Gustavo and Beethoven more forcefully along with him, was to tweak the inner workings of the score with slight adjustments in length and variety that eventually had the audience eating out of his hand.

Denk deserves credit for using Beethoven's long-winded cadenza and giving it a blood and thunder performance out of a Liszt drawing room, which may have cemented his relationship with the audience. No matter what Denk and Gustavo were doing between them, and none of it was anything less than entirely pleasant, the audience insisted on falling in love with Denk (and with Gustavo too, don't worry). After a plodding slow movement and a very whippy finale, whipped with both speed and cream, the audience erupted in applause and wouldn't let Denk go until he played an encore of totally, incongruously, beautiful Ives.

After intermission, in the Mozart symphony, fatigue seemed to set in. The troops were willing, but conflicted by inconsistency in how to handle big volumes and masses of sound, and faltering just a bit in their virtuosity. Gustavo seemed physically restricted in his movement and left the Menuet of the Haffner almost entirely unconducted and the Phil on its own.

The audience, which was understandably reduced by the weather, proved to be one of those audiences musicians dream about, willing to become involved with the experience and play a part in the outcome. Musicians have told me many times how an entire concert can become a matter of their responding to what the audience clearly likes. As it was Sunday afternoon at Mouse Hall.