Concertos on Land, Fire & Water
What is there to say about the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? Its music evokes the full vocabulary of bland, useless adjectives: well-balanced, elegantly detailed, perfect. On my well-stocked shelves of critical writing I find no poisoned pen aimed against the work. Even that teeming battleground, Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, provides nary a harsh word.
Yet the music disturbs the senses. At the sudden slippage into a minor key in the slow section, you justifiably catch your breath; a dedicated soloist — Hilary Hahn at the Hollywood Bowl last week — has heartfelt confidences to share, and speaks them with suddenly acquired passion. The moment soon passes, but during its time it has elevated the entire work onto a new plane. Our trampled emotions need the sheer giggling delight of Mendelssohn’s last movement — most of all that magical flight of fancy when he blends his fairyland theme with one that is slower, more reflective, and, miraculously, makes the two contrasting tunes stick together — to get things into balance once again.
Hilary Hahn has pushed her way through the hordes of sloe-eyed, cute teenage fiddlers to emerge, at 26, a musician of intelligence and consequence. Her journey has been well managed; you can trace it on discs, from the Bach she performed three years ago with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra to the remarkable intellectual breadth she brought to the grandiloquent sprawl of the Elgar concerto a year later. Splendid teachers have guided her hands in command of her instrument, but you get the feeling that the brain that guides her playing is her own. So was the marvelous sense of conversation she generated with conductor Hugh Wolff and the Philharmonic.
Sad the lot of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, which usually turns up at the Bowl on one of the fireworks nights and, thus, is relegated to the position of curtain raiser for the 1812 Overture — a lowliness of stature I would not wish upon any music whatsoever within my cognition. The piece rides around over a mass of self-contradiction; “bad, trivial, common,” raged Nicholas Rubinstein, who two years later sang Tchaikovsky’s praise to the rich Russian widow to gain funding for his Conservatory. Self-contradiction lies at the heart of the work itself: a catchall of disconnections and empty gestures, agreeable moments that never return, other moments that merely kill time, like so much Some Assembly Required that still hasn’t happened.
Why is the work popular? The first of the unassembled parts turned into a pretty pop tune (“Tonight We Love”), and the clangorous chords underlying that tune are a popular notion of what piano virtuosity is supposed to sound like. The slow movement dissolves into the kind of Mendelssohnian scampering that Mendelssohn accomplished far better. Only at the end, in the finger-busting octave passage before the return of the Big Tune (which even Vladimir Horowitz managed to fudge on most of his several recordings, to the delight of those who have lusted after his crown) does it begin to sound like the grand, romantic concerto that the overambitious 34-year-old composer fancied himself to be writing. Yet the work rides on its aura of romantic blather and, I suppose, on its fame: less deservedly so than any work of its proportions I can name.
Yet, as I was saying, it brings on the fireworks in the 1812, and I do not let a Bowl season go by without such adventure. If you don’t know, or care to know, about the Bowl’s fireworks, I cannot be of much help; you have to be there. You have to marvel at the complexity of the structures over the top of the Bowl that spell out building shapes and, on Tchaikovsky night, the flags and insignia of the warring Czarist and Napoleonic forces as they bring about an amazing visual counterpart to Tchaikovsky’s cornball counterpoint. Most of all, you sit back in astonishment at the rhythmic precision of the firings: not only the downbeats but, amazingly enough, the notes in between. “Pyro spectaculars by Souza; Gene Evans, special effects consultant” is all the program tells us about this wizardry; I suspect the emergence of an authentic art form, but maybe it’s just the kid in me.
Afloat Without Conductor
The fountain tricks at intermission at the “Grand Performances” in California Plaza downtown are remarkably similar to the Bowl’s fireworks, if on a more modest level. The air traffic overhead is similar to that at the Bowl but on a more extravagant level; buses and trucks along Grand Avenue add to the obbligato. Once every summer, at least, it is worth enduring the impossibilities of the setting to take in the annual concert by the excellent Mládí Chamber Orchestra, as I did last Saturday. At least my harsh words last year have caused management to abandon the ludicrous practice of a segue from the live music to recorded pop at intermission and at the end. Never doubt the power of the press.
“Mládí” was Janácek’s work, meaning “Youth,” and the small orchestra, which functions without conductor, played with its usual exuberance and clarity: a crisp and clean Prokofiev “Classical” and a suite from the Stravinsky Pulcinella. In between, the evening was rendered divine by Donald Foster’s clarinet in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, where suddenly all other sounds anywhere around seemed suspended and nothing else could matter. That’s Mozart for you.
Obiter dictum: Something else that did matter was the sound of the string bass of Christian McBride, at the Wednesday-night jazz program back at the Bowl, which — I admit with some shame — was the first of the series I’d gotten to this summer. McBride is the Philharmonic’s new creative chair for jazz, and the glory trail of his career runs at least as far back as 1990. What I heard the other night wasn’t merely a matter of my visit to another category. The deep pulse of McBride’s instrument was a bass of richness not before known to me; its infiltration into the sounds of the others in his band — Ron Blake’s saxophones, Terreon Gully’s drums, even Geoffrey Keezer’s keyboards — was something I could easily share. His set was one of three on the program, with Joshua Redman and Herbie Hancock, but the sound that followed me home was the bass of Christian McBride.?
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