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Magic Time at the Bowl

At about 8:10 on the night of July 16, the sky above the Hollywood Bowl was dappled with small puffs of cloud, turned a soft pink in the rays of the setting sun. At the same moment, the sound came off the stage in similar puffs of string tone, dappled with flashes of audible light (also pink, if you wanted it to be) from a solo harp: a small piece called Guardian Angel by Karen Tanaka. This was music of great charm if no great consequence, but the coincidence of sight and sound turned into one of those moments -- rare, alas -- when music at the Bowl becomes like nothing else on Earth.

The Bowl season is upon us, and with it the usual outpouring of published wisdom as to why the place should be shut down or turned into condos and multiplexes. At the opening concert of the ”classical“ concert series two weeks ago, proclaimed as festive by the release of captive balloons but turned drab with an agonizing evening of Brahms inflicted upon the captive audience, it was easy enough for even the staunchest defender of these summer concerts to join the ranks of the naysayers. The music was soggy, the playing (under Paavo Jarvi, with Lars Vogt at the piano) coarse and self-indulgent. What kind of managerial thinking can it be to start off a season -- indoor or outdoor, festive or routine -- with the Brahms D-minor Piano Concerto, beginning as it does with the death howl of a wounded mastodon and ending on a similar note nearly an hour later?

But then came last week’s concert, turned noble not only by the sunset over Tanaka‘s pretty piece, but by some terrific music making under the Philharmonic’s new assistant conductor, Yasuo Shinozaki, whose praises I had sung once before when he took over Hans Vonk‘s scheduled Beethoven program during the winter season. This time Shinozaki conducted the Beethoven ”Eroica,“ and was joined by Emanuel Ax and his wife, Yoko Nozaki, in the unadulterated bliss of Mozart’s Two-Piano Concerto: a lot of E-flat major for one evening, but a notable concert on any level. In its own eloquent way, however, this event pointed up what could very well be wrong about the whole concept of these Bowl programs, at least the TuesdayThursday series that constitute the classical (once known as ”Symphonies Under the Stars“) side of the operation.

The plan -- two programs a week under guest conductors, some of them previously unknown to the orchestra and most of them granted a mere three or four hours of rehearsal on the morning of the concert to make the acquaintance of the orchestra and make them acquainted with the music -- is what is most wrong about the Bowl, far more so than the informal atmosphere, the picnicking and the copters overhead. The attendance may be paltry compared to the weekend programs of show tunes and fireworks, but it still often reaches two or three times the capacity of any indoor hall. It‘s a family crowd with plenty of youngsters, the very people the Philharmonic should be trying hardest to reach if it is ever going to supplant the Thursday-night and Friday-matinee walking dead during the winter season. For that reason, among many, these are the people who should be getting absolutely superb, involving, thrilling music making, on the level of the Salonen programs still to come, or on the level of Shinozaki’s Beethoven last week. That performance, by the way, drew cheers. Even at the maligned Bowl, some people can be counted on to know what they‘re hearing.

Shinozaki, 30, is a find. My spies in the orchestra tell me that he is well-liked and well-admired. His contract with the Philharmonic runs only another year; his career -- concerts in his native Japan and also in Finland, where Salonen has been beating his drum -- is nicely taking shape. He came to this one concert -- why only one? -- with the advantage over most of the season’s guest-conducting roster in that he knew the players and they him. That showed, even through the Bowl‘s still-primitive amplifying system; this was poised, eloquent playing, exuberant but well-mannered, and when the brass section took up for the last time the grand tune of the ”Eroica“ finale, you couldn’t help wanting to stand up and sing along.

What a work, that ”Eroica“! The best performances -- and this was one -- respond most of all to the incredible momentum of the piece, the rising dramatic curve that is differently shaped in each of the four movements, but produces each time a breathless tension. The first movement sounds that famous dissonance -- an intruding C-sharp in an E-flat context -- and requires an enormous time scale to set matters straight; we‘re something like 15 minutes into that movement before we even learn the full shape of the opening theme. The slow movement guides us to the brink of tragedy, shines an occasional shaft of C-major white light through the gloom, but ordains howls of pain from the trumpets as the music simply shatters, there in the thin, chill air. The finale takes us at first all the way back to Square One, and builds its new tune, one note at a time, from muttered fragments. The same thing happens, more famously, in the Ninth Symphony; here, in the Third, Beethoven had already achieved his mastery of music as drama. Eventually the finale achieves some kind of epiphany, with the last outpouring that -- even more than the famous chorale in that other masterwork six symphonies later -- sounds an anthem of redemption for all mankind.

The great performances send you home exhilarated, with nothing but the ”Eroica“ on your mind for hours and days to come. As I was saying, this was one.


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