When it comes to standard musical fare at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s tough to come up with two composers more iconic than George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Besides having their music performed pretty much every summer in the Cahuenga Pass, the two Americans have other close ties to the Bowl:
- The 1937 memorial concert commemorating Gershwin’s too short life was famously broadcast from the Hollywood Bowl, and featured the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a whole host of performers, likely and unlikely, who came to honor the man who first merged jazz and classical music. (BTW: the recording of the concert is a must-have, and includes all sorts of good stuff, including a quirky transcription of the Piano Prelude No. 2 conducted by Otto Klemperer, the LA Phil’s music director at the time.)
- Bernstein spent a few summers conducting at the Bowl, most notably as one of the founders and artistic directors of the now-defunct Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute.
So seeing their music on last Thursday’s program, along with works from Gershwin’s French contemporary, Maurice Ravel, seemed de rigueur — at least at first. Leave it to conductor Stéphane Denève to put a slightly different spin on the night: the theme would be Americans influenced by the French, and French influenced by Americans. Just for good measure, he brought along French pianist and Los Angeles resident, Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
The Marquis de Lafayette, Josephine Baker, Frédéric Bartholdi, and Jerry Lewis would have undoubtably approved of the sentiment. I certainly approved of the outcome.
Mr. Denève proved to be charming, both in his remarks from the stage and in his musical interpretations. The LA Phil sounded quite nice, with many notable solos being contributed by players within their ranks. Mr. Thibaudet knocked the stuffing out of a concerto that was right in his wheel house. Even the Bowl’s temperamental A/V system mostly behaved. There was much to enjoy, and very little to fuss about.
After a somewhat sloppy beginning to The Star-Spangled Banner, things quickly settled in and Mr. Denève and company played a raucous rendition of the overture to Bernstein’s operetta adapted from Voltaire’s Candide. Another chunk of Bernstein’s music, Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, followed immediately. While Mr. Denève’s interpretation could often feel surprisingly stiff during the ensemble portions, the work is dominated by all kinds of solo moments, and in those he allowed the LA Phil musicians to swing and sway with abandon.
The Piano Concerto in G by Ravel closed the first half of the evening. Ravel was clearly inspired by jazz at a time when most of France was similarly obsessed, and the concerto certainly is an example of it; however, there is certainly as much, if not more, of Ravel’s own melodic, harmonic, and textural language evident in the piece, and that becomes even more plain when the concerto is played alongside the likes of Bernstein and Gershwin. Mr. Thibaudet, a dabbler in jazz himself, proved to be the ideal soloist. He crouched over the keyboard during the snappy outer movements, the Bowl’s big screens capturing his jackrabbit-quick fingers darting up and down the keyboard for all to clearly see. In the calm central movement, he leaned back to luxuriate in the music’s simple and sultry longing. Outside of perhaps Martha Argerich, it was tough to imagine the concerto being played any better, and even then, the delta is minimal.
Gershwin’s An American in Paris opened the second half. Let’s face it — as long as you don’t try anything too crazy, this is pretty tough music to screw up, especially with an orchestra like the LA Phil that plays it regularly and plays it well. Mr. Denève gave it a fine, if slightly idiosyncratic reading, taking leisurely tempos and highlighting harmonies and inner textures that gave it slightly more Gaelic flavor (or perhaps that was the work of the folks manning the sound mixing board — you can never be quite sure at the Bowl).
The last work on the program was Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2. This was conductor and orchestra at their collective best. The music sparkled, and Mr. Denève masterfully shaped colors and tempos to maximum effect.
As mentioned above, there were lots of great solos by Philharmonic musicians:
- Principal Trumpet Donald Green was featured throughout the evening. From slinky playing in On the Town to the crazy rapid-fire demands of the opening to the Ravel concerto, he showed off the lyrical sound and pinpoint technique that has been the hallmark of his 30-year tenure with the orchestra. Moreover, he was particularly tough to miss this night: the video screens had his image up more than anyone else besides the conductor; it gave the audience a chance to see close-ups of normally difficult to catch things like the felt hat over the trumpet bell that Gershwin calls for during An American in Paris, not to mention countless mute changes. When he retires at the end of the summer, he’ll be going out in fine form.
- Mr. Green wasn’t the only outgoing musician of note: Principal Flute David Buck was ravishing in Daphnis and Chloe. After a solo like that, it’s tough to believe that his inability to gain tenure was due primarily, if at all, to his playing. I can’t help but wonder what non-musical issues contributed to his impending departure.
- Monica Kaenzig (E-flat clarinet) and James Rötter (saxophone) gave their nicely slippery contributions to On the Town, with Carolyn Hove adding some noteworthy parts on English horn, too.
At the end of the evening, Mr. Denève and orchestra played a true encore, repeating the Candide overture accompanied by unannounced fireworks. It was a celebratory exclamation mark to rewarding evening.
Random other thoughts:
- Let’s hope Mr. Denève returns soon. It’d be great to hear him conduct in the friendly confines of Walt Disney Concert Hall once again. That said, he seemed to be at one with the Bowl and its atmosphere, and I could see him as a regular summer guest, even a Principal Guest (whether full-fledged or limited to the Hollywood Bowl).
- Besides their penchant for focusing in on Don Green, the video team was on target for the entire evening. They did a good job of finding the right player(s) to zoom in on at the right time. The decision to show a close-up of the harp during a quiet moment was a particularly good one.
- The amplification was, well, so-so. I’ve heard much better, and I’ve heard much worse. It was certainly better than it was the previous Tuesday.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 26, 2012; Hollywood Bowl
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
BERNSTEIN: Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G
GERSHWIN: An American in Paris
RAVEL: Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2
- Stéphane Denève in Paris: courtesy of http://www.stephanedeneve.com
- All others: CK Dexter Haven