Every year around this time I start keeping a yellow pad close at hand, to jot down all the reasons why classical music at the Hollywood Bowl is a totally unworkable proposition. The list is long and sad; it should be familiar by now. Most of it dates back to Bernheimer days. Some items on the list seem to come and go. The concerts two weeks ago, for example, deluded me into believing that the sound engineers had beaten back the echo problem that had been so annoying last year. Not so; last week’s Beethoven program, with those quick, sharp sforzandos that stand out in Ludwig’s musical signature, restored that particular bugaboo in full glory. The Bowl endures, warts ’n’ all.
But then there are the times when those warts impart to the joys (and perhaps even the sorrows) of Bowl-going a radiance of their own; you have to realize that there is nothing just like this cultural phenomenon anywhere else in the land, and that it is our great good fortune to have it among us. Take the aforementioned Beethoven program, an event that, though it promised modestly on paper, I still cannot get out of my ears in the actuality. To begin, the weather gods were all enthroned that night; it was one of those sublime, calm, 70-ish nights when the 6 o’clock news is full of Texas hurricanes and East Coast heat waves but the local air offers naught but benevolence. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, music that I have often found somewhat soft-spined and lacking in point of view in indoor concerts, a pretty but inactive piece more endurable than adorable, sounded on that night no less miracle-strewn than the surrounding air: smiling and caressing. The special marvel of Beethoven’s orchestral language in this particular work — the way, for example, that he bends his violin solos around the first bassoon in notable passages in all three movements — stood out like a newly fashioned stripe on an audible rainbow. The most magical of all its episodes — the hushed G-minor rhapsody in the first movement, when the violin soars heavenward with a newly fashioned variant of the main theme, accompanied far below with the timpani’s insistent throbbing of the movement’s principal rhythmic motif — was transformed that night into irresistible messages from some distant galaxy. And that power, friends, to convert the musically ordinary into the celestially extraordinary merely through the phenomenon of atmosphere, is reason enough to keep up attendance at the Hollywood Bowl.
Gil Shaham was the soloist, with Jeffrey Tate the evening’s conductor. Born in Illinois, raised in Israel, Shaham has earned most of his following so far through his service to the flashy, romantic side of the repertory. Moving on toward Beethoven seems, therefore, like a step upward. I heard his effort as honest, dedicated and intelligent — the foundation, in other words, of what may turn into an important statement on Beethoven’s quiet not-quite-masterwork, but not there yet.
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony rounded out the program, with Tate observing all the composer’s specified repeats — a rarity at the Bowl. I found this a strong, beautifully shaped rendition, with special care lavished once again upon Beethoven’s remarkable wind scoring. I struggle somewhat to visualize the shape of the donkey’s ears through which the junior critic on the Times apparently heard the performance, with the quiet, melancholic allegretto turned into a “funeral march.”
My Fair Mládí
Musical pickings are sparse during the summer months, but rewards await the ardent serendipiter. Two days after the Bowl’s Beethoven, I happened upon an eminently satisfying chamber-music concert in a UCLA lecture hall, and was glad I did. The players were five members of Mládí, the ensemble whose wintertime programs in an old apartment building near Silver Lake I have also found reason to praise. The setting, Korn Convocation Hall at the Anderson School, is your basic drab lecture room, but the sound is warm and welcoming. There are five concerts every summer, endowed by and named after Henry J. Bruman, a UCLA professor who liked the idea of making music available, and admission is free.
The Bruman concerts are solid, interesting and challenging. Last week’s program consisted of four new or newish works for winds. One, a perky and thoroughly delightful duet for flute and oboe by the local composer Alex Shapiro, was brand-new, and Shapiro was on hand to deliver a few words about her piece. The final work, the Six Bagatelles by György Ligeti, is the kind of energy-packed music, novel and adventurous at every turn, that you keep on hand to play for people who tell you that contemporary music isn’t worth the ink it takes to print it. The hall at UCLA seats about 600 at a guess, and it was comfortably filled. Most of the audience were on the gray side, the kind of people who’d have the time for a concert on a Monday or a Thursday afternoon, and they seemed thoroughly pleased with the kind of programming these concerts tend to offer. I bring this up in relation to the fear that seems to stalk the land — concerning LACMA’s “Sundays Live” concerts and their broadcast sponsor, for example — when the matter of unfamiliar or contemporary music comes up.
There are three more Bruman concerts: July 28, August 1 and August 4, with the superb Calder Quartet on hand for the last of these. Don’t tell me that nothing happens out here in the summer.