Recitals at the mammoth Hollywood Bowl are iffy propositions to begin with. The idea of a lone instrument there, supported by a less than prominent piano, seems like someone's notion of funhouse distortion.
But in the case of flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and his trusty accompanist John Steele Ritter, who faced a crowd of 7,744 Wednesday night, the incongruity was more apparent than ever. One little bit of tootling in the great expanse of Cahuenga Pass surely had to be a joke.
Especially since the tootling was poorer than anyone had reason to expect, given the relative success of last summer's performance at the smaller Greek Theatre.
Whether the famous French flutist found himself particularly off form or whether the underamplified sound, plagued by echoes, simply did not deliver the assumed nuances remains a question.
What could be heard, however, was a distant, raspy, nasal sound--sometimes indistinguishable from the imagined gurglings of a wind instrument under water.
The row of potted trees decorating the stage helped visually. And not everything on the wildly eclectic program suffered at the same rate--a few items actually made their mark, thanks to the presence Rampal managed to bring to them.
Regardless of the state of his technique, the man is indefatigable. He loves playing and he never fails to come up with seldom heard music, some of it eminently suited to an artist who can no longer depend on his much-lauded virtuosity.
Both love and artistry finally came across in three of Beethoven's National Airs with Variations, Opus 107. These charming tunes found Rampal issuing a clear, sweet tone, chiseled trills and supple innuendoes--at least before he got to the dense and thus problematic variations. So characterfully played was the Tyrolian Air that at any moment one expected to see a ballet swain and his blushing soubrette appear.
A group of Japanese melodies, admittedly too thin to warrant an audience's undivided attention, allowed the flutist to float lovely long lines. Ritter helped things along with a koto-sound-alike synthesizer.
The unadorned cantilena, which opens Albert Franz Doppler's "Fantaisie Pastorale Hongroise," also fared well (until the passage work), and to Bazzini's "La Ronde des Lutins," a flutter-tonguing specialty, Rampal brought a share of verve and velocity.
But Gershwin's Three Preludes were dreary, withered apparitions. The Bach and Mozart sonatas also suffered a dismal fate. Lose many, win a few.