Meat and Potatoes by the Bowlful 

Wednesday, Aug 16 2000
Phopto by Christian Steiner

There is a magical moment — one of many, actually — midway in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. The orchestra has come through a furious battle punctuated by shrieks and howls, horrendous offbeat accents and a whole new tune that has dared to intrude in an outrageously “wrong” key (E minor — horror! — for a movement in E flat). Now, their energy spent, the players seem to rock back and forth on their heels for a moment of near silence. But a horn player grows impatient at the sudden calm, and bursts in with the main theme four bars too soon. (Beethoven’s assistant, at the first rehearsal, tried to “correct” this premature intrusion, and earned from Beethoven a stern rebuke.) It’s a glorious moment, still startling 197 years after the fact.

I have to tell you all this because, if you were at the Hollywood Bowl last week when Hans Vonk and the Los Angeles Phiharmonic gave their greatly respectable version of the “Eroica,” you didn’t hear it. With awesomely accurate timing, a small airplane cut a diagonal trajectory across the Bowl and exactly across the time frame of Beethoven’s startling innovation, obliterating that one sublime moment. Now, I defer to nobody in my rejoicing at the existence of the Hollywood Bowl. I have, in my 20 years on the local scene, smiled tolerantly at those who would applaud between movements — it’s preferable to snoring, after all — and at the occasional descent of a happily emptied wine bottle down the concrete steps. I have even been known to shrug off the intrusions into the Bowl’s air space — at least on Rachmaninoff or Richard Strauss nights — assuming that the brave souls in the LAPD’s copter squadron were hot in pursuit of desperadoes that deserved to be caught, drawn and quartered. That night, however, I was angry.

I fear that my tolerance toward the flawed amenities of Bowl-going is showing signs of wear. Some years ago the Bowl management gave me a guided tour of its battle stations: hot-line telephones to Aviation Central, radar, sworn promises from local airports in writing to warn pilots away from the area. There are searchlights that define the Bowl space, although their gleam seems to vanish into the marine layer on some nights. I haven’t checked to discover whether these fortifications are still in place; they didn’t work all that well then, and they surely don’t now. One consequence of all our lovely prosperity that I hear about in the media is that more people own planes now than ever before. Who are we, therefore, to deny all these new tycoons the pleasure of an early-evening airborne jaunt to witness the lights of Los Angeles, including the stage lights up in Cahuenga Pass? Only a gathering of cranky music lovers, numerous enough on some nights to fill three Dorothy Chandler Pavilions, in seats priced up to a hundred bucks, that’s who.

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Otherwise, it’s been a superior Bowl season in the good-conduct department: Paul Daniel and Junichi Hirokami, whose praises have already graced this page; Thomas Dausgaard and Hans Vonk more recently, both particularly admirable in the meat-and-potatoes stuff. Dausgaard, a great but not at all melancholy Dane, led a knockout Brahms First on the second of his two programs: rawboned and large-scale. Just the opening salvo — fast, hard-driving, inexorable — was enough to make even the most devout anti-Brahmsian sit up straight and pay attention. The young Canadian James Ehnes delivered a tidy account of the Beethoven Violin Concerto; what I liked even more than his clean, elegant playing was the lovely blend of woodwind tone that Dausgaard had fashioned with the orchestra. His first program, I’m told, included the woeful César Franck symphony, but since my medical benefits don’t include a sanity clause, I sat that one out.

The Netherlands’ and the St. Louis Symphony’s Vonk had conducted the Philharmonic indoors in April 1999; I admired him then, and I did again last week. He cuts an ungainly figure on the podium; he looks to be on stilts not completely under control. But he makes marvelous music, a kind of throwback to the solid, European-based musicianship for which words like probity were invented. He gave us two Beethoven symphonies (the “Eroica” and, two nights later, the “Pastoral”) in exceedingly attractive, warm-hearted readings — but, alas, without the first-movement repeats that help define the stature of both works. There were amplification problems both nights that created particular pitfalls for Beethoven’s wonderful scoring: the horns overmiked, the winds poorly balanced. Worse yet, the Great Bassoon Joke in the third movement of the “Pastoral” was totally inaudible both times around.

Jaime Laredo played the Bruch G minor Concerto at Vonk’s first concert, suggesting only that both violinist and concerto cry out for pasture. Someone at the controls turned up the volume on Laredo’s violin about halfway through; that made it louder but not better. On Thursday came the inevitable, the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, with a merely okay — and far from note-perfect — delivery by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Back East the arrival of the seed catalogs in midwinter announces the prospect of warmer weather ahead. Out here the arrival of the Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites brochure in midsummer announces the prospect of cooler weather ahead. Both publications bear the message that this is, or is trying to be, the best of worlds.

Once again, founder, artistic director and blithe spirit MaryAnn Bonino has put together an alluring parlay: 28 events — string quartets, early-music groups, jazz, Bach, kid stuff — each one in a setting as if God and the architects had first heard the music and then done the designs. There’s Union Station for jazz, the Queen Mary for a chamber orchestra, churches all over town, the glorious rotunda at the Doheny Mansion for a whole series of enchanted Fridays. Next time a visitor from beyond the mountains starts in about Los Angeles’ lack of class in the arts, MaryAnn’s brochure is what you brandish. Ask for one at (310) 954-4300, and prepare to salivate.

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