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Music Review

Show Goes On at the Bowl

Philharmonic, with turmoil behind the scenes, musters more professionalism than fun in summer debut of classical music concerts.

July 08, 1999|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The first of this summer's classical music concerts at the Hollywood Bowl began Tuesday night with a great big sneeze. It is the first gesture--the whole orchestra convulsing--in the overture to Zoltan Kodaly's comic opera, "Hary Janos," which recounts the incredible adventures of this boastful Hungarian soldier who claimed to single-handedly bring Napoleon to his knees begging for mercy. And in Hungary, Kodaly reminds us, everybody knows that a sneeze is a sure sign that the truth is being told.

And so Hary's sneeze proved a delicious stroke of programming fate. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is back from its monthlong vacation for business as usual in another Bowl season. But behind the stony facade of professionalism lies turmoil and uncertainty. The general manager, Willem Wijnbergen, recently resigned under mysterious circumstances; the orchestra is in contract negotiations; key positions (principal cello and trumpet) need to be filled.

It had been one of Wijnbergen's priorities, during his 15 months on the job, to attempt to breathe some new life into the Bowl routine, and this summer he was to exhibit the first fruits of his efforts. And that life may, in fact, be there, with jazz and world music innovations and some genuinely interesting classical programming upcoming. But Tuesday night offered little inspiration.

Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer made his Bowl debut. His program was Bowl-ordinary--the Suite from "Hary Janos"; Bruch's Violin Concerto, with 18-year-old Sarah Chang as soloist; Strauss' tone poem "Thus Spake Zarathustra." He brought old-world solidity in his generally slow tempos, insistent metric regularity and thick sound, but not much flair. He wasn't much fun. And neither was Chang.

The Bruch and Strauss suffered from comparisons. The popular Bruch concerto is a Bowl staple and was performed last year, again early in the summer. The soloist on that occasion was Pamela Frank, and she was exceptional in the lavish scope of her playing, its freedom and individuality, its ability to communicate in a large space and still seem chamber-music alert and playful. Chang--half Frank's age, blessed with a spectacular technique and a teenager's sense of self-assuredness--is just the opposite. A big, Romantic concerto is a daunting beast to tame, and the notes, which she plays with utter confidence, are her security blanket. But she hasn't yet the greater confidence to stop thinking of her task and listen. We don't yet know the musician she will become.

She does, nonetheless, excite. At the evening's end, teams of teenage boys leaped from their seats and sprinted full speed, mowing down all obstacles, to the Tower Records booth, where the young violinist was signing autographs (only to find that a number of clever teenage girls had already beaten them to the first places in line). It was a merry sight for classical music.

Fischer, too, faced unfortunate comparison. Three months ago the Philharmonic offered a gleaming-as-stainless-steel, incisive "Zarathustra" under Emmanuel Krivine. Fischer was more conventionally bombastic and less sensual and cerebral, favoring doughy sonorities, some of which turned to brown mud under amplification.

That amplification was a problem. The evening's one innovation was a new placement of the orchestra back as far into the shell as possible in order to better control microphone pickup. Visually that made the musicians feel even more distant than usual. And it didn't appear to help the sound system either. In the Kodaly suite, the most colorful music of the evening, the loudspeakers unnaturally spotlit individual players and added distortion. Conditions improved as the evening progressed, and one heard a nearly satisfactory orchestra sound for the Strauss, if always bass shy.

"Zarathustra" ends in indecision, wavering between two unrelated chords and leaving us to wonder whether a Nietzchean Superman might or might not be able to lift mankind to new heights in its battle against the forces of nature. Was that yet more symbolism, as we ponder the Philharmonic's future? With Fischer and the Bowl's sound crew as the fallible human side of the equation, nature won this round.

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