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MUSIC REVIEW : Against Some Odds, a Sweet Triumph for Kathleen Battle

August 10, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Unless they happen to be tenorissimos, singers don't usually bring big audiences to the Hollywood Bowl. Local connoisseurs seem to prefer instrumental fare as accompaniment to their starlit picnics, roll-the-bottle-down-the-stairs contests and helicopter convocations.

Tuesday night, however, Kathleen Battle attracted an audience of 12,236. And it wasn't your ordinary garden-variety audience.

This was a crowd that did a lot of standing, hooting and hollering. This was a crowd that listened attentively to sophisticated arias by Stravinsky and Mozart (not vulgar Verdi and Puccini). This was a crowd that yelled "thank you" and "brava" (with nary an uneducated "bravo" within earshot). This was a crowd that demanded encores.

Did the appreciative masses turn out because Battle happens to be an artist of extraordinary sensitivity, intelligence and delicacy? Or did the turnstiles do some extra turning because the reportedly hyper-temperamental diva has received so much publicity in the wake of her recent firing by the Met?

The Shadow may know. We don't.

But we do know that Battle exuded sweetness and charm. We do know that she looked terrific as she wrapped--and constantly, inventively, re -wrapped--herself in a 20-mile yellow stole that contrasted glamorously with her simple black gown. Most important, we do know that she confounded her devilish reputation by singing like an angel.

Her triumph didn't come easy. The infernal Bowl microphones--this year's new ones vastly inferior to last year's old ones--turned Battle's silver-bell tones into nasty metallic blasts. Every pristine sound came, moreover, with its own chorus of echoes.

The soprano's very first phrase, the reflective recitativo accompagnato introducing Anne Trulove's aria from "The Rake's Progress," was obliterated by rude aerial intrusion. The formal part of her program--framed by symphonies of Mozart and Mendelssohn--involved less than 25 minutes of singing. The orchestral support provided by Kent Nagano and the Los Angeles Philharmonic wasn't notable for flexibility.

Even so, one had to admire the dauntless clarity and subtlety of Battle's phrasing, the purity of her timbre, the unwavering accuracy of her pitch. One had to admire her seamless legato, her perfectly gauged trill, her infinite breath control, her dauntless poise.

She brought just the right aura of stylized urgency to the demanding Stravinsky scena, not exactly a sure-fire choice to close the brief first half of the concert. After intermission she concentrated on Mozart, singing "Un moto di gioia" with alluring whimsy, "Deh vieni, non tardar" with arching tenderness, hasty tempo notwithstanding, and "Misera, dove son!" with virtuosic fervor. The only element missing was the illusion of spontaneity.

There were two encores, both exquisite and both carefully choreographed: a very slow, very arty version of Gershwin's "Summertime," followed by Rachmaninoff's gracefully insinuating "Vocalise," which had been part of the originally scheduled agenda.

Had all gone as planned, the evening would have begun with Mozart's Symphony No. 29 and ended with Haydn's "London" Symphony. The conductor would have been Jeffrey Tate.

The British maestro canceled, however, because of an arm injury. Nagano, who agreed to replace him at short notice, brought along a different pair of symphonies: the 16-year-old Mozart's 15th (G-major, K. 124) and Mendelssohn's "Scottish."

Although Nagano enjoyed--or had to make do with--the normal number of rehearsal hours, the Mozart sounded rough and unready. The Mendelssohn, on the other hand, sounded bright, reasonably brash and tastefully propulsive.

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