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Exploring a Key Decade From the 19th Century


While orchestras around the country eagerly begin their fall seasons, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, locked in the land of endless summer, labors still at the Hollywood Bowl. Yet Tuesday night neither orchestra nor a crowd large enough to fill nearly three Dorothy Chandler Pavilions appeared impatient for summer's succession of classics, often rehearsed and performed the same day, to end.

And it's a good thing, too, given that Schubert's C-Major Symphony, the "Great"--which can seem as long as a Bowl season unless the conductor is strong enough to maintain momentum without sacrificing its glorious detail--was on the program. So was Chopin's Second Piano Concerto, which practically ignores orchestra and conductor and flies fine on the wings of song when a pianist is eloquent enough to pilot it.

The hands on which the program depended were experienced and reliable. Lawrence Foster, a longtime Philharmonic regular, seemed unusually forceful in the Schubert (as he is in the current L.A. Opera "Pagliacci," which he also conducts). The pianist, Emanuel Ax, played the Chopin as he plays everything: lovingly--his tone, round and ringing; his manner, full of joy.

Foster also programmed a bit of exotica to open the program, the six-minute overture to Cherubini's very much forgotten opera, "Ali Baba, or the Forty Thieves." Likable as such a discovery can be--and this is a charming and impressive bit of excellently fashioned fluff--the work seemed to serve another more important purpose. It is classically made in the late 18th century manner; it seems to come from another world than the rarefied, lyrically romantic one of the early Chopin concerto. And both these pieces have little to do with the Schubert, which speaks of breaking down the whole symphonic tradition, as the 19th century would later do.

In fact, the program indicated something the ear could never have known--that the three very different works were written within a span of less than a decade. Moreover, the most modern of them, the Schubert, was the earliest--1825. The one that looked back, the Cherubini, was the latest--1833. Chopin's concerto, a calling card for a 20-year-old composer, came in the middle, 1830, and was a style unto itself.


Such individuality is not unlike our own era. We, too, have no unified style. It is often lamented that our composers pick from the past and invent the future at will, and willy-nilly, unlike the greats from the past. Ax and Foster, both worldly Americans with a late 20th century sensibility who take the music straight and do not attempt to impose themselves upon it, were ideal in allowing each work its own stylistic space, its own personality. Hearing the 19th century like that proved an interesting way to better hear our own world.

The Hollywood Bowl does not like to impose ideas upon listeners, however. The program book made no attempt to put the evening in perspective. And the Philharmonic's commitment to program notes has, in general, become slipshod, even recycling notes that are decades old rather than updating and addressing the current program. Nor is there much encouragement to read them, since the booklet is sold for 50 cents (half the price of the cheapest seat), and consequently is too often overlooked by audience members.

The Bowl boasts of being a venue where new audiences can be developed, and the Philharmonic is justifiably proud of its worthy educational projects. It might be worth a small expense to give its audience a good summer read. Especially when it offers music, as it did Tuesday, worth reading about.

* Lawrence Foster again conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, with soloist Alexander Treger, 2301 N. Highland Ave., tonight at 8:30. $1-$75. (213) 480-3232.

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