The setting for last week’s first classical music concert of the 2013 Hollywood Bowl season couldn’t have been more perfect: the temperature was a picnic-perfect low 70’s, cooling down just a little as the sun set; the sky was clear and cloudless, and a very slight breeze blew through the amphitheater. It was, as the great Vin Scully might describe it, a “Chamber of Commerce kind of day” in Los Angeles.
Into this setting walked Michael Tilson Thomas. It was both a familiar and new sight: the native Angeleno had been Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic during part of the 1980’s, but has been a relatively infrequent visitor since then, and has only conducted once at Cahuenga Pass since the 2003 renovation gave the Bowl its new, larger band shell. On this night, he strode towards the podium with a confident smile, the crowd welcoming him with a warm response. The requisite Star Spangled Banner had a relaxed, almost casual feel.
That same easy-going attitude imbued the early parts of the Mahler Symphony No. 2. The veritable sturm und drang of the ominous opening movement was relatively restrained, while the limpid second movement felt helium-filled in its lightness. There were a couple of times in those two movements that felt too micro-managed, but overall, MTT kept it all expertly balanced and well paced.
As the evening wore on, the scale and intensity grew: the third movement scherzo swirled ominously, leading directly into the fourth movement and a beautifully penetrating solo by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.
When the final movement arrived, it was a veritable eruption. Tilson Thomas finally gave the orchestra more room to maneuver, and they took it, letting loose an arsenal of sounds that ranged from deep and probing to bright and radiant. Ms. Cooke continued to impress and soprano Kiera Duffy sounded lovely too, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale adding their own considerable talents to the mix. The result was grand and cathartic.
Throughout it all, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was in good form, especially this early in the outdoor season. Sure, there was a noticeable entrance or two that may not have been as clean as it typically would be, but overall, the playing was excellent. Strings sounded pure, with the woodwinds and especially the brass sounding in mid-season shape. Principal Trumpet Tom Hooten was very deservedly given the first solo bow of the evening; MTT pointed to many of his colleagues throughout the orchestra to stand up after him.
Aiding them all in the open air was the brand new audio/visual system that was installed at the Bowl. The sound is non-trivially better: you hear more richness from all of the instruments and voices. The sound engineers were able to dial in the right levels relatively quickly and there were no variations as conditions evolved after the day turned into night. There is still room for improvement — some of the climaxes in the final movement came through the speakers hot and had noticeable distortion — but things are definitely moving in the right direction.
The new high-definition video screens are stunning, and in a universe where every house seems to have multiple 1080p big-screen TVs, this finally brings the visual experience at the Bowl into the 21st century. Colors are vivid and crisp, even while the sun is still out. There were numerous instances of cameras & directors choosing to show tacet musicians on screen, but when they got it right, it looked great.
The best moment came in the fourth movement “Urlicht:” as Ms. Cooke sang of pain and heaven, the camera captured the intensity and emotion on her face as the breeze lightly blew through her hair and rustled her black dress. There is no way the old screens would have captured that level of detail with any clarity, especially for the bulk of the audience watching from bench seats. It was, dare I say, magical.
Random other thoughts:
- While the sound system behaved better than in the past, aircraft did not. As Murphy’s Law predicts, planes and helicopters always seem to find the least opportune moments to fly by. One helicopter totally ruined the effect of the off-stage brass, while another intrusion was so bad that MTT extended a pause well beyond its normal length, allowing the noise to dissipate before finally giving the cue for Sarah Jackson to play her piccolo.
- To applaud or not to applaud: after the first movement’s dramatic ending, the audience remained silent. MTT, perhaps surprised by the quiet, turned around on the podium with one hand shielding his eyes from the stage lights, and peered out into the audience as if to see if anyone was still there. This elicited an ovation, which drew a shake of the head and embarrassed grin from the conductor as he turned back around. After the quiet end to the second movement, the audience applauded again, leading MTT to lower his head into his hand with a look that screamed, “What have I done?!” (This was, perhaps, the second best use of the shiny new HD video screens).
- Roger Kaza, Principal Horn of the St. Louis Symphony, sat in as guest principal horn with the LA Phil.
- Other opinions:
- Tim Mangan (Orange County Register) was a fan of it all
- Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times) loved it musically, but once again showed his disdain for modern technology by declaring his preference for the older, lo-def video screens of the past. . . . It’s worth noting that he sits in a Garden Box for these concerts, closer to the stage than most people at the Bowl. (Compare his Garden Box view of the stage HERE vs. the view from bench seats in Section M/N about half-way from the top of the amphitheater’s seats HERE — um, drastically different experience, in my humble opinion)
Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 9, 2013; Hollywood Bowl
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Kiera Duffy, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, music director
Mahler: Symphony No. 2
- Michael Tilson Thomas: photo by Chris Wahlberg
- Sasha Cooke: photo by Dario Acosta