TGIF at the Bowl | A Lot of Night Music | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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TGIF at the Bowl 

Wednesday, Jul 21 1999
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Photo by Donald Dietz
CLASSICAL SNOBS, WHOSE COMPANY I seldom cherish, tend to look down upon the Friday/Saturday concerts at the Hollywood Bowl as some form of lowlife entertainment to be swept under the nearest rug. What can you expect, they sneer, from a pickup orchestra whose personnel changes from week to week, with soloists booked from the ranks of show biz rather than high-culture management, with programs made up of tidbits rather than nicely padded hourlong symphonies?

Maybe so, but maybe no. Sure, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, an assemblage of studio freelancers with shifts of personnel from week to week -- and even shifts of names, whereby string players Patricia and Timothy on the July 9 list turn up as Pat and Tim a week later -- cannot be defined on the same basis as the set-in-stone Los Angeles Philharmonic. Sure, the HBO seldom if ever gets a hearing without intervening microphones and outdoor sound systems of varying and dubious quality. (A rare "indoor" hearing, presumably unmiked, is slated for the Music Center next October.) Such a situation in, say, Cleveland would certainly spell disaster. It doesn't in Los Angeles, thanks to its large roster of studio musicians extraordinarily adept at landing on both feet in any kind of musical terrain. It was a pickup ensemble that (as the Columbia Symphony) once recorded Beethoven and Mahler under Bruno Walter; it's a pickup ensemble that marches, in time and in tune, to John Mauceri's probing baton weekend after weekend at the Bowl.

I write these benevolent words in a glow after last Friday's concert. It had ended with a knockout performance -- as near as I could tell, filtered through bombs bursting in midair -- of Ravel's Boléro. Ravel had perceived the work, Mauceri told the crowd in his well-honed, charm-drenched manner, as a musical distillation of a factory in full operation. Sure enough, when the music's obsessive design swung into its final chaos (the collective brass blaring out their blooie-blooie in several tonalities at once), the fireworks of Gene Evans' PyroSpectaculars took on the glisten of those gasworks down near Carson with their gusts of insidious orange flame and the blankets of white-hot stars sent sky-high. I am always suckered by the Bowl's fireworks, but I can't remember a time when sight and sound so convincingly merged. My sympathies that moment went out to the aforementioned absent snobs, who will never know what they missed.

That was reason enough to preserve fond memories of last Friday's concert, but there was more. There was the orchestra's lustrous, soft performance of Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess, small music and not quite a masterpiece, but an aura that seemed to float free in the caressing breezes of Cahuenga Pass. Some of Mauceri's admirable reconstruction work on film music turned up, the seductive waltz from Miklós Rózsa's score for Madame Bovary. There was another cherishable presence, the venerable mime Marcel Marceau, on hand because the program boasted a "Vive la France!" theme as a two-days-late celebration of Bastille Day. Never before at the Bowl, and never before performing with a full symphony orchestra, this greatest of all great impersonators -- as wise and as limber as we all should hope to be at 76 -- brought along his familiar, wondrous one-man troupe: the cowardly lion tamer, the human octopus, the man of many ages. Video cameras caught the small image center-stage and sent it to the big screen overhead. You could forget the vast reaches of the Bowl, with its 18,000 seats (more than half of them filled); the art of Marcel Marceau made it all seem small and enchanted.

THE DOUBLE TALK CONTINUES; THE questions remain unanswered. Neither the interviews in Saturday's Times nor an hour of Which Way L.A. on KCRW did more than express the faith that the Tooth Fairy would somehow pull the Philharmonic out of its management crisis. Only Mark Swed, on the broadcast, expressed any awareness that a serious situation existed, and might turn deadly.

The other crisis, which besets the orchestral scene worldwide, is even further from resolution: Where and how do we find, or invent, the talent to take over the growing number of vacant podiums here and abroad? Most of what I read doesn't even address the problem correctly; it's not a matter of "Where can Boston find another Seiji Ozawa?" but "Where can Boston (and New York, and Philadelphia, and Houston, and wherever) find leadership of talent, integrity, imagination and, if the gods so ordain, personal magnetism, to bring about the needed redefinition of orchestras that can stanch the leakage of ticket buyers and still maintain a proper balance of past, present and future?"

There are no more Ozawas; he -- along with his unsteady clone Zubin Mehta -- was already a throwback to an obsolete breed that preserved podium pizzazz and to hell with musical honesty. The few firebrand types that survive -- Simon Rattle, Valery Gergiev, Yuri Temirkhanov and, yes, Esa-Pekka Salonen -- look great on podiums but don't need to hide the fact that they are also musically wise. The other extreme, the musically solid citizen (New York's Kurt Masur, Philadelphia's Wolfgang Sawallisch), bred in the German classics and shakier on the fields of adventure, is also on the way out; the new Germanics (Christian Thielmann, Ivan Fischer, St. Louis' Hans Vonk, perhaps Cleveland's Franz Welser-Möst someday) seem a livelier bunch.

I don't think we're running out of conductors. Donald Runnicles' Ring in San Francisco had me plotting ways to kidnap him for a stint down here. Among visitors here in the past couple of years I've been impressed by Fischer (at the Bowl last season, with his own orchestra), and at the Philharmonic by Vonk and Gergiev, by the extraordinary tiny Japanese demon Junichi Hirokami, and by yet another splendid Finn, Sakari Oramo. Among local heroes I number Pasadena's Jorge Mester, and wonder why so inventive and widely capable a figure doesn't have a full-time orchestra somewhere. In a relatively short time, Jeffrey Kahane (on the podium, at the piano or both) has greatly enhanced the excitement around the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's activities. I also admire Kahane's continued loyalty to his excellent minor-league orchestra in Santa Rosa (as I admire Kent Nagano's loyalty to his Berkeley Symphony despite the rising of his star all over Europe).

Meanwhile, back at the Music Center . . . It's ironic, sort of -- lots of solid, respectable performing talent around, but nobody to run things, sign the checks, keep the stage swept, the stuff of management's job. Labor negotiations loom on the near horizon; we also scan that horizon for signs of concrete being poured atop Mrs. Disney's parking garage. Esa-Pekka's contract runs into the next millennium; what there'll be for him to conduct, and where -- an orchestra, a program, a stage -- adds up to one helluva big question. The public -- ticket-buying, taxpaying, music-loving, tone-row-deploring, some or all of the above -- deserves a better answer than the present cloud of double talk. The time is up for the Tooth Fairy.

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