By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
• Los Angeles Philharmonic; Bramwell Tovey, conductor; Pacific Chorale, Los Angeles Children's Chorus; Cyndia Sieden, soprano, Benjamin Butterfield, tenor, Eugene Chan, baritone,
• Tovey: Urban Runway; Richard Strauss: Don Juan; Orff: Carmina Burana
• Tuesday, July 8 • Hollywood Bowl
We knew when Bramwell Tovey took over as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl that his concerts would take a different slant than his predecessor, Leonard Slatkin. We just didn’t know how different the opening salvo of Tovey’s tenure last night would be.
Just as the 54-year-old Englishman (he turns 55 on Friday) gave the downbeat to the Star Spangled Banner, the heavens opened up — albeit briefly — and doused the audience with what turned out to be a 10-minute rain shower. As Tovey said after the SSB, “All of us on stage were looking at all of you scurrying around and wondered what in the world was happening.”
That kind of witty commentary is a Tovey trademark and was much in evidence before the two pieces that began the concert. He opened with Urban Runway, an eight-minute piece that he wrote for the New York Philharmonic (where he also directs a summer series) and the LAPO. On first hearing, it proved to be a perfect Bowl-type piece: light and jazzy in the two outer sections bookending a lyrical section written for violas. The premise was shopping and shoppers, specifically 5th Avenue in Manhattan and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, but what was most evident was the sheer joy that Tovey brought to the composition and to his leadership from the podium. It wasn’t meant to be anything more than fun and that was enough.
Prior to intermission, Tovey and the orchestra offered a thoughtful, exceedingly well played performance of Richard Strauss’ first tone poem, Don Juan. Again, Tovey set things up eruditely for the audience, offering a roadmap of things to listen for along with some history about the lothario who has inspired(?) many composers. The performance featured, among other things, sensuous oboe solos from Marion Arthur Kuszyk and sterling work from the horn section.
Carl Orff’s sprawling oratorio Carmina Burana, the single work after intermission, is one of those pieces that people either love or hate (and it’s hard to say which side has the most votes). Tovey offered no verbal argument for programming the hour-long work, which, in retrospect, was a good thing because the concert ran until 10:30 p.m. even without second-half commentary.
In an interview last week, Tovey said that Carmina Burnana works only when the musicians are good enough to make a performance succeed and Tovey had plenty of help last night. He kept things moving forward smartly, the Phil was in top form, the Pacific Chorale sang with both power and precision (most of the time) and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus piped prettily.
Soprano Cyndia Sieden was radiant, apart from a few forced exceedingly high top notes, and tenor Benjamin Butterfield’s somewhat nasal tone seemed appropriate for his texts. The star of the evening turned out to be 24-year-old baritone Eugene Chan, who flew down from San Francisco (where he’s in San Francisco Opera’s Merola program) on a few hours notice to replace an indisposed colleague. In the longest and meatiest solo role in the piece, Chan delivered an assured, powerful performance, particularly given that he was working on no rehearsal. His is a name to keep watching.
Whether Tovey won any converts to Orff’s piece is open to debate but a good time was had by most.
• The audience was announced as 9,631, although it seemed larger.
• It was obviously opening night for the video camera crew who were clearly not at their best. You couldn’t avoid the images since the texts were being projected on the screens but things were often pretty ragged.
• In a world where publications are struggling to retain advertising, the Philharmonic’s program, Performances Magazine, seems to be bucking the trend. The $1 cover price isn’t hurting the bottom line, either.
• There were plenty of airplanes, helicopters and rolling wine bottles throughout the evening, but it is, after all, early in the season.
• Tovey returns to the Bowl tomorrow night for a program of Saint-Saens’ (Organ) Symphony and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
© Copyright 2008, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.