Against the taunts of the nonbelievers, I cling to the premise that a night at the Hollywood Bowl, even for the Tuesday/Thursday “serious” programs, can be a joyous, even uplifting, event. Some nights this summer, however, I've had to cling more tightly than usual, although the last two weeks' concerts, with Esa-Pekka Salonen back on his rightful podium, outweighed some of the sadder memories.
Attendance for the classical events has been down this summer. Any impresario would, of course, be happy if four or five thousand people showed up for a regular-season concert; yet scattered through the nearly 18,000 seats at the Bowl, a crowd that size looks like the population of an Inuit outpost. I find it harder than usual, this time, to castigate the stay-aways. The Bowl's classical offerings are studded with masterpieces: Beethoven symphonies, Romantic symphonies and showoff concertos, not a note of Haydn or Schubert but lots of Brahms, a welcome year off for Tchaikovsky symphonies but a fair helping of Shostakovich, a big- or medium-name soloist every night. But each of these programs gets a single day's rehearsal, under conductors sometimes previously unknown to the orchestra. Top-ranking conductors – Simon Rattle last summer, Roger Norrington last month – are allotted (and deserve) extra rehearsal time, and the results show. And they show, as well, when Salonen takes the podium and hasn't had to waste half a rehearsal just getting acquainted.
On any night, the idea of putting together a picnic supper and washing it down with live professional performances of symphonies and concertos is mighty appealing; the Bowl deserves its worldwide fame. (The new managing director, Willem Wijnbergen, has already confessed to an amorous passion for the Bowl, even for the august Philharmonic playing backgrounds for Bugs Bunny cartoons, as happened one night. You could never make this work in stodgy Holland, he assures me.) The sound in the boxes, where the pampered press is seated, is acceptably clean for outdoor amplification, although the mix of live and wired tends to fade in and out. In the first rows behind the boxes, where I sat a few nights ago, the sound was pure electronic, and even better. But the commodity being amplified – underrehearsed performances, led by conductors whose occasionally inadequate readings can be laid as much to circumstances as to failed musicianship – has struck me on many occasions as the Bowl's major continuing problem. Anyone troubled – as I was – by Jeffrey Tate's laggardly reading of Elgar's Enigma Variations, by Stefan Sanderling's slog through Mendelssohn's “Scottish” Symphony or by Lawrence Foster's merely dutiful Beethoven, redeemed only by the fireworks, might have difficulty in fixing the blame.
There's no easy solution. It's not a matter of hiring better conductors; I've heard superior performances from the three named above, properly rehearsed. Maybe it's a matter of hiring fewer conductors for longer stints: two weeks to get acquainted with the orchestra, rather than one. (Aside from Salonen, it's the soloists rather than the conductors who usually sell tickets at the Bowl.) Cutting back on the classical series is, of course, an unconscionable option, although this year's small turnouts must be causing concern in some quarters. Again, if a conductor were here for two weeks instead of one, there might be more opportunity to promote his or her appearance – granted, of course, an increase in enlightenment in the local media. But what can I, humble handservant of the arts that I am, know of such matters?
Salonen's four Bowl programs were dress rehearsals for the Philharmonic's European jaunt now under way. (Lucky Europe is, however, being spared the Sibelius Violin Concerto, mushed through by Joshua Bell and Salonen on the third program.) Two extraordinary vocal performances, by singers a generation apart, lit up the skies. On the first program, Gundula Janowitz, a week past her 61st birthday, sang five slow Richard Strauss songs (with the piano parts acceptably orchestrated) with the same youthful urgency and sweetness of both tone and phrase that had enslaved us all with her Sieglinde at the Met (and on discs) in 1967. Lorraine Hunt's transfiguration of Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer on the last program hung in the summer sky like an apparition from some benevolent planet. What an amazing, wondrously wise, seductive artist she has become in the few years of her incandescent career!
And so Salonen and his Philharmonic take to Europe some of its own music: Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner – the Fourth Symphony, which he conducts cleanly and sturdily, but which still seems to get longer every year – and his rough-and-ready sprint through the Beethoven Fifth. Better yet, they take some of our own music: the glorious romp of John Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox, with its writhing, steaming tangle of the many scale-forms that the great, late Nicolas explored and codified, and Aaron Copland's archetypal world-music exploration, El Salon Mexico – whose execution the other night, alas, lacked some of the down-and-dirty that the much-missed Lenny had so gleefully supplied.
Best of all, Salonen is taking his own latter-day triumph, his 20-minute LA Variations, a work that, many hearings after its memorable premiere, continues to assure me that serious, deeply considered and imaginatively crafted music for large symphony orchestra can still be written and can still exhilarate. It may, in fact, be the most challenging music ever performed outdoors anywhere: a stupendous workout for both players and listeners as a complex, tortuous theme spirals through the orchestra, tries on a wondrous variety of disguises, weathers storms along the way and ends enchantingly as a shaft of audible white light (a single high note on the piccolo). Perhaps the reception at the Bowl fell short of the memorable ovation at the premiere at the Music Center a year ago last January, but not by much; a small but happy, responsive crowd proved itself equal to the challenge. So, even, did the demons of air traffic. It was one of the Bowl's great events.