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MUSIC REVIEW : Lurid Russian Flames at the Bowl


Poor Modest (a.k.a. Petrovich) Mussorgsky. He thought he had written a colorful suite of piano pieces in tribute to the artist and architect Victor Hartmann back in 1874. Something small and quirky but splashy.

The world didn't want it that way. Stubborn posterity wanted "Pictures at an Exhibition" (a.k.a. "Kartinki s vistavki") to be huge, sprawling, cataclysmic.

First came various orchestrations, most notably the popular edition by Maurice Ravel. Then came the distortions, most notably the Gargantuan version by Leopold Stokowski.

And now, from the geniuses who gave us the "1812" Overture in delirious excelsis, comes "Pictures" at a Bowl. Make that Hollywood "Pictures."

Now comes Mussorgsky's subtle (everything is relative) tone painting punctuated with raucous bursts of flame, with rockets red-glaring, with blinding flashes of whooshing light, with whizzing meteors that go buzz in the night, with enough clouds of smoke to rival a zillion outlawed cigarettes, with push-button kitsch projections to prettify the arching proscenium, with throbbing jukebox glows to shift the shade of the mighty shell, with lighting devices that transform Frank Gehry's acoustic orbs into so many fertile eggs, with precious sparkles a-dancing on the beat, with quaint onion domes rising in the sky like cheap Christmas-tree decorations. . . .

And that's not all, folks.

This climactic spectacle produced enough snaps, crackles, pops, roars and thuds to obliterate much of the music, despite the revival of Stokowski's bloated instrumentation and despite the use of microphones that translated every whimper unto a thunderclap. Nevermind. Since much of the playing was crude and rude, though undeniably lusty, the losses seemed bearable, maybe even merciful.

This, in case you couldn't tell, was the weekend when John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra celebrated the closing of their third season on the airplane runway at Cahuenga Pass. With a little help from the resident pyrotechnicians, they took advantage of the festive occasion to blow up the Great Gate of Kiev. The unhatched chicks may never be the same again.

Most of the Friday-night audience, officially tabulated at 12,532, (on Saturday: 12,822) loved every crash, blitz and thump. Never underestimate the cultural attraction of the Fourth of July on Labor Day.

Those who didn't love every crash, blitz and thump were the patrons who had to retreat from seats stationed in areas seemingly endangered by friendly fire. These unfortunate souls wanted to lighten up, no doubt, but they didn't want to be lit up.

The sedate portion of the program was devoted to Hollywood Bowl Orchestra business more or less as usual. It turned out to be brazenly incoherent business: a lengthy, generously illustrated music-appreciation class held together by Prof. Mauceri's would-be witty verbal vagaries.

The mostly Russian agenda included loud orchestral excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," an unscheduled chunk of Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" that made little sense out of context, the ever-snazzy Sailors' Dance from Gliere's "Red Poppy" and a glitzy suite from Franz Waxman's Technicolored "Taras Bulba" in which the most notable event involved the synchronized twirling of string basses.

And that's not all, folks.

There was a stellar soloist too. When Los Angeles first encountered the Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (a.k.a. Khvorostovsky) at the virtually empty Wilshire-Ebell in April 1989, he was a 26-year-old member of a flock of unknown Soviet singers chaperoned by Irina Arkhipova.

"If he always sings as he did on this occasion," wrote the omniscient observer in this column, "he could have the world at his feet."

Hvorostovsky didn't try for much dynamic sensitivity in the wide open spaces. But he did, once again, impress with a stream of uncommonly steady, dark, well-focused tone, with legato phrases supported by endless breath, and with an urgent sense of drama.

During the first half of the concert, he offered rather explosive arias from Tchaikovsky's "Yevgeny Onegin," "Pikovaya Dama" and "Iolanta." After intermission, he ventured three overheated folk songs: "The Pedlars," "Coachman" and his quasi-signature piece, "Dark Eyes," followed by the same unaccompanied apostrophe to the night heard at the Ebell on that memorable evening four years ago.

One would have thought that the Mussorgsky fireworks represented a hard act to follow, but reliable sources assure us that there were encores. Mauceri mustered Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" as well as George Gershwin's oh-so-Slavic "Soon." And Hvorostovsky came back to blare and brood and gush about those "Dark Eyes" one more time.

Perhaps he can be persuaded to omit that bit when he returns for his first Music Center recital on March 1.

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