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MUSIC REVIEW : A Bad Night for Beethoven at Bowl

August 12, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Tuesday night was a great night for airplanes at the Hollywood Bowl. At nine crucial moments during the Beethoven concert conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the hills were alive with the sound of droning.

It was a good night for the box office. According to official tabulation, 11,597 patrons passed through the creaky turnstiles. Never underestimate the on-going appeal of a little Ludwig.

It was, as always, a terrific night for conspicuous picnicking, for bouncing bottles down concrete steps, and for the production of mysterious crashes outside the amphitheater entrance.

But it was a bad night for Beethoven.

Salonen, who completes his first year as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week, can do a lot of things beautifully. He is exceptionally bright, tough and energetic. He knows how to illuminate thorny challenges, especially those with modernist tendencies.

He doesn't always seem to be persuasive or comfortable, however, with the expansive indulgences of the 18th and 19th centuries. Beethoven, for instance, does not bring out the best in him, and he certainly does not bring out the best in Beethoven.

He began his third program of the summer innocently enough, with the quaint esoterica of the "Konig Stephan" overture. In this fascinating failure, Beethoven surrounded a silly hurdy-gurdy tune with a portentous series of symphonic climaxes. Salonen sustained a mercifully brisk speed, a neat beat and a straight face throughout.

The troubles began with the Fourth Piano Concerto, which introduced a 26-year-old prize-winner from Pittsburgh with the intriguing name of Awadagin Pratt. Striding onstage in a scarlet T-shirt, a voluminous ponytail breezing down his back, he served instant notice of a penchant for nonconformity. There's nothing wrong with that.

*

There were, unfortunately, a few things wrong with his playing. He tended to make a big, thick, mushy sound that was made all the mushier, no doubt, by the amplification system. He did a lot of impetuous pounding in quest of heroic impact, and, in moments of agitation, hit the cracks between the keys more often than is par even for a debutant's course. He took some odd rhythmic liberties, and he all but scrambled the composer's cadenzas.

Unlike so many of the faceless virtuosos who earn gold medals, soon followed by oblivion, Pratt is a musician with independent ideas. Give him credit for that. Eventually, one hopes, he will learn to process, filter and focus those ideas. In the meantime, he might be well advised to leave Beethoven's noble rhetoric alone.

The problems on this nervous occasion were compounded by an apparent clash of interpretive attitudes that pitted the soloist against the conductor. Pratt tried to keep everything loose. Salonen tried to keep everything tight. The twain met mostly at the cadences.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the Seventh Symphony. Salonen kept it moving in businesslike fashion. The articulation was always clean and crisp. One had to admire the pervasive clarity, and, if so inclined, one could applaud the absence of sentimentality. This obviously was a young man's Beethoven.

It also was rigid, almost mechanical Beethoven. It was prosaic and perfunctory Beethoven. It was generally hectic Beethoven in which the most striking inspirations involved erratic shifts in tempo.

It made one long for the golden, distant, romantic days of Carlo Maria Giulini and Kurt Sanderling.

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