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Slowing Down the Tempo

Conductor Jeffrey Tate leads L.A. Philharmonic in a relaxed, amiable program at the Bowl.

July 16, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Last week at the Hollywood Bowl, the hyperkinetic British conductor Roger Norrington performed Mahler and Beethoven like a house on fire. Tuesday night, another well-known British maestro offered an antidote. It is unfair to Jeffrey Tate to think him poky, but he was evidently in an expansive mood with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

There are many kinds of slow. With Leonard Bernstein, who broke the record for extenuating tempos at the end of his career, it was as if he were stretching time in a near shamanistic search for the ultimate expression of each pitch. The music moved forward with such deliberation because so much life pulsed within. Late Klemperer seemed, on the other hand, more a combination of metabolic slowing and a deep-seated need to hold on. For shallower conductors, slowness is too often a means of simply appearing deep.

Tate's tempos feel less slow than like a generous tarrying. He, too, seems reluctant to let go, but he is casual and sensuous. His is a loving-the-music-to-bits slowness. And thus there was a rounded and regal national anthem, an amiable and supple "Marriage of Figaro" Overture and a warm "Enigma" Variations that was like a dinner party both jolly and relaxed enough for one to savor delicious tastes.

Tate, though, miscalculated the Bowl. The Hollywood amphitheater isn't really a bucolic setting. There is often a chill in the air. Urban noises intrude: the din of distant traffic, rude aerial encroachments. The unpredictable amplification, more distinct and satisfying some nights than others, provides further sonic edge.

So while Tate may have hoped to enjoy a softness in instrumental texture and dynamic, the environment wouldn't always have it. The orchestra was drowned out in the quietest passages, and the amplification turned his attempts at sensitive balances into a kind of generalized sonic cushion. And Tate's ideas about Mozart's overture and Elgar's variations undoubtedly require more rehearsal than the Bowl's morning run-through.

Even so, there was pleasure to be had in the affection he brought to Elgar's portrayal of his friends. The "Nimrod" variation went on forever, and its romantic glow was more winter hearth than summer Bowl, but at least Tate invited one to dream.

Pamela Frank was the evening's soloist. Of all the young female violinists making a splash these days, she is the first I'd rush to hear. She is an utterly solid musician who is particularly noted as a recitalist and chamber music player, but she can also be riveting in a big, romantic concerto, like the ever-popular Bruch G Minor, which she played Tuesday.

Frank was both an incendiary soloist full of passion and also reliably grounded to the score. Her tone is robust. Her technique, a virtuoso's. She makes a big impact. But she distinguishes very clearly between flair, which she has, and flash, which she doesn't. She is a violinist for both connoisseur and general public, and the communication is direct.

The agreeable Bruch concerto, however, may be just a tad too trite for Frank and Tate, or at least they gave that impression. I don't know if it was conductor or soloist who decided to draw out the Adagio movement, but it felt like a hunt for illusive substance.

Still, the opposite is far worse, and far more common. And the audience had no problem with this at all. It was a small crowd (Frank is not yet a huge draw), but an impressed and grateful one. Quality speaks for itself.

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