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Music Review

At the Bowl, the Music of 'Ivan' the Terrific

July 15, 1999|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Hollywood Bowl has a popcorn stand. It has a giant movie screen. It has an elaborate sound system. And, as in any good movie theater, the audience is asked to refrain from talking. No art cinema this, however. Bowl film clips tend to be cartoons and Hollywood blockbusters with their popular scores played live for weekend pops programs.

But Tuesday night, in just the kind of event the Los Angeles Philharmonic needed to overcome its drab summer-season opening last week, the orchestra turned to an extraordinary collaboration between film and music, that of two great Sergeis--Prokofiev and Eisenstein, in the latter's final film, "Ivan the Terrible." And "Ivan" is a terrific example of art that reflects many of the contemporary currents usually shunned by the Bowl.

Just look around. As the Los Angeles County Museum of Art draws a large audience for its Diego Rivera show, we are reminded of Rivera's influence on Eisenstein's visual sense (the Mexican painter even drew the Russian filmmaker to Mexico, where he shot "Que Viva Mexico"). With a new "Fantasia" soon to come from Disney, we are reminded that Eisenstein turned to everything from "Silly Symphonies" to Gertrude Stein when he thought about joining music and cinema. As dance combines with theater (Matthew Bourne's "Cinderella"), as theater experiments with techniques from world cultures (Peter Sellars' "Peony Pavilion") and abstracts politics into wild montages (the Berliner Ensemble's "Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui"), as the Philharmonic tries to find a new language for music and film (the Filmharmonic series), we see that Eisenstein--in "Ivan" and elsewhere--created a foundation for all of this.

"Ivan" is a troubled but nonetheless great work. Made during World War II, Eisenstein and Prokofiev both struggled to reconcile their strong nationalist feelings with the scary politics of Stalin. Their first collaboration, "Alexander Nevsky," glorifies the dictator, but also transcends that stubborn interpretation. "Ivan" began as a patriotic Wagnerian cinema but ultimately ran afoul of Stalin--who banned the second part, in which Ivan's lust for power overwhelms his humanity.

Prokofiev wrote the music in the grand manner of his operas and ballets, and incorporated a large chorus (the music is best known in a dramatic cantata that was fashioned from the film score after the composer's death). Witnessed at the Bowl, with live music and a large, vivid picture (the original spoken dialogue of the soundtrack was retained with the music track removed), one immediately senses the sheer grandeur of the vision. The resplendently operatic processionals, provocatively balletic homoerotic scene in the Polish court, the melodramatic musical commentary on arresting faces make this a vivid live experience.

Andrew Litton, the enthusiastic conductor, did a better than reasonable job, under difficult Bowl circumstances, of keeping score and film in sync; the Philharmonic responded with appropriately colorful and grand playing; and the Los Angeles Master Chorale (prepared by former Philharmonic assistant conductor Grant Gershon) contributed ardent singing. There were technical problems with combining film sound and amplified live musicians that could be overlooked. There were worse problems, however, in the choppiness of the presentation. One gets the Eisenstein spectacle but not, in disconnected excerpts, the larger sense of majesty of the full three-hour work.

Before "Ivan," the Philharmonic introduced earlier Prokofiev in his first Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist. Like "Ivan," this is politically uncertain work, written in 1917 just as Lenin seized the Winter Palace. Prokofiev hid his nervousness in a warm, conventional, classical style. But Shaham, a violinist in his late 20s (around the same age as Prokofiev was when he wrote the concerto) and lately feeling his oats, eagerly dug beneath the lovely, placid surface.

The performance was brilliant, alternating between deliciously creamy lyricism and happy athleticism and a joy to listen to in its own right. Shaham's overeagerness, though, was not Prokofiev's, and the concerto is strangely stronger when the composer's anxiety remains an undercurrent. Still, Shaham's outgoing personality registers well over Bowl-size expanses, and Litton appeared happy to support Shaham's ebullience.

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