For better or worse, we tend to associate the so-called ”serious“ side of the Hollywood Bowl’s musical smorgasbord (i.e., the ”classical,“ or TuesdayThursday, programming) with a gathering of old friends. A succession of Rachmaninoff toe-tappers with their hit tunes that come and go, a swirl of a Tchaikovsky pas de deux, a tinkle of Ravel and Saint-Saens: All of these will soothe the savage beast without offering any sort of challenge to the attention span. Symphonies lasting an hour or more, you might think, belong in the more lordly air of the Music Center in midwinter. Yet three successive classical programs, last week and this, have been dominated by symphonic behemoths: the Shostakovich 10th, Berlioz‘s ”Fantastique“ and — past deadline, stay tuned — the Beethoven Ninth.
Interesting sidelight: All three works are colored, to some degree at least, with the idea of chaos, a struggle to emerge victorious, and some kind of apotheosis. Beethoven’s triumphant final tune shakes itself free from an orchestral argle-bargle in which three other alternatives are presented and shouted down. Berlioz and his ladylove, unable to achieve earthly consummation, mount their his-and-her broomsticks and ride off toward an infernal eternity. Shostakovich assumes his own identity late in the 10th Symphony and pounds his mortal enemy — the dreaded Stalin — into nothingness. That‘s a lot of dramatic involvement to inflict on a picnicking Bowl audience, but the turnout for Shostakovich and Berlioz was reasonable (something like three Dorothy Chandler Pavilionfuls overall), and the responses were enthusiastic.
I have not always, I confess, approached the Shostakovich 10th Symphony with eager anticipation; last week’s performance, under the excellent young (31) Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes, was ardent and well-paced, and it turned me for once into a believer. Its story is well-known. Shostakovich, again in the doghouse in the late 1940s after his lightweight Ninth Symphony failed to deliver the Stalinist tosh the authorities had been promised, withheld the more substantial and complex 10th, which he knew would incur even greater wrath. In 1953 Stalin lay obligingly dead, and the new symphony, at last out of the closet, celebrated that fact in its final minutes on a note of triumph: the theme of Shostakovich himself out-shouting the menacing Stalin tune. Before that had come nearly an hour of richly scored, spacious, important music. Some of it reworked previous ideas — the eerie stretches in the Sixth Symphony with a single instrument seemingly lost in space, the sweet folksiness of the Ninth. Even with the familiar Bowl acoustical drawbacks, I heard this work as what others have claimed for it: the most consequential of the Shostakovich symphonies, and the one that guides us most closely toward the heartbeat of this fascinating and troubled musician.
Last week the Bowl management, striving intrepidly toward the cutting edge of the arts and the sciences, set up a new visual experiment for one week only: video screens flanking the Bowl structure on both sides, and another pair halfway up the hill to improve the view for the folks in the one-buck seats near the Nebraska border. The onstage goings-on were captured by several cameras beside and behind the performers, plus a few up front. Having smaller screens on the sides, rather than the usual big screen hung at center stage, made not watching somewhat easier — no harder, say, than abstaining from a bowl of potato chips within reach. Ironically, the installation coincided with the institution of an earlier starting time for the classical concerts — 8 o‘clock instead of 8:30 — so that the first half-hour or so was dimmed by conflicting daylight. Questionnaire forms — enhancement? distraction? — were handed out; the ultimate fate of the new system, known as IMAG, rests in the hands of the voting public. (Absentee ballots will not count; you had to be there.)
I vote a qualified negative. On Tuesday night we saw quite a lot of suffering, in the tortured face of violin soloist Kyoko Takezawa, locked in unequal combat with the Tchaikovsky Concerto. On Thursday we were vouchsafed less than 10 seconds to look upon the face of pianist Louis Lortie as he jiggety-jogged through Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; it would have been worth knowing whether he himself was as wreathed in smiles as was his playing. We did get to watch a lot of his finger work, including a couple of neato montage shots of 20 fingers at work at once. Also on Thursday, the cameras took in an irritating amount of conductor Emmanuel Villaume‘s mugging and arm waving — familiar from the L.A. Opera’s abject La Rondine last year — although his antics produced results in well-balanced performances of Berlioz: the ”Fantastique“ and the ”Royal Hunt and Storm“ music from Les Troyens.
On both nights there was sporadic evidence of properly rehearsed camera cues, but equal evidence of shots taken at random. The sweet face of Tamara Thweatt matched the sweet voice of her piccolo at several junctures in Tuesday‘s Shostakovich. On Thursday we saw the four timpanists in the ”Fantastique“ close up, and Carolyn Hove’s poignant English horn, but not the bass drum and not, in the ”Witches‘ Sabbath,“ the violins playing col legno to depict the rattling of dry bones. Friday night’s event, with the terminally cute, execrably untalented Charlotte Church as soloist with every dimple aglow, had the orchestral sections nicely in focus during Britten‘s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Elsewhere on the program — on the half, that is, that I could bear — the cameras mostly aimed in a hit-or-miss relationship to events in the music. Why, in other words, bother?
I suppose you can say that the video setup underscores the theory that music at the Bowl deserves to be taken seriously, not merely as Muzak for food, wine and cell phones. So does the new series of pre-concert talks (titled ”Backbeat Live“ to contrast with the ”Upbeat Live“ talks at the Music Center), which take place in the Gehry-designed roofed-over picnic space between the museum and the box office — and where there is also a small but good barbecue menu. I detect another irony here, however: Does making a Bowl concert resemble more closely a night at home, with the teevee and the barbie, outweigh the hassle of parking and the guy with the cell phone two seats over? Just asking; I‘ll still take the Bowl.