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It's Open Season

Brahms program struggles to survive clattering china and intrusive concession service in the Bowl's summer debut

July 11, 2002|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Big, brawny Brahms--the First Piano Concerto and Fourth Symphony--opened the Los Angeles Philharmonic's summer classical concerts at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night. Paavo Jarvi conducted, and Lars Vogt was the pianist--strong, serious performers well suited for unfrivolous music. They had their work cut out for them.

Modern life is unlike what it appears to have been in the glamorous, historic Otto Rothschild photographs recently installed at the Hollywood Bowl museum. Back then, the audience dressed elegantly (might the popularity of winter coats and furs seen in the old photos be evidence of changed climate as well?), and "QUIET!" was painted in large letters on the wood slats of the box seats. I can hear the exquisite grace of Arthur Rubinstein's Brahms in my head as I look at his backstage photo.

Today, you get the feeling that the Patina Group, which has become increasingly aggressive and, forgive the pun, tasteless in its Bowl catering, would like nothing better than to turn the venue into the world's largest restaurant. In the box seats, some meals are delivered to patrons just as the concert is about to begin. I was particularly glad to be far from the Pool Circle, where there is now full sit-down service on clattery china.

The only thing that remains the same year in and year out is the music, and Tuesday it was not quite so easy a fit. Colorful balloons were sent aloft in celebration of opening night. With a Freudian slip, an announcer introduced an emcee from K-Mozart as from Kmart. A frantic last-minute rush was made, and in many cases not made, to stash picnics and prepare for the concert. Then, suddenly, the jolt of that dark, somber, turbulent D-minor opening of the Brahms concerto. Was anyone prepared for it? Certainly not the engineers twisting the amplification dials.

If the sound at the Hollywood Bowl had a bold and lifelike presence, we might suddenly have been transported from one age to another. But the ear takes time to adjust here; the mood changes as the sun sets, the audience settles in and the sound system settles down.

Both Vogt and Jarvi take a modern approach that favors textural clarity, carefully chiseled phrasing and biting rhythms, all useful in cutting through the thick orchestrations. Vogt's tone is deep, rich and bell-like, which is ideal for the burnished Brahms sound.

Vogt's lyrical passages in the concerto's slow movement were beautifully controlled, and he was exciting when throwing his weight into the heroic theme of the first movement. This is a long concerto, written by a young composer determined to write a blockbuster. It wants to grab the listener by the throat and hold on for 40 minutes. Tuesday's performance faded in and out of focus--the music simply could not sound as big as the environment in which it found itself.

The Fourth Symphony, late Brahms and more elegiac, was not ineffective. Jarvi got some very expressive playing from the strings in the first movement. Winds and brass sounded brittle, but it was impossible to know whether balances were controlled from the podium or the sound booth. My guess is that Jarvi was attempting an indoor interpretation outdoors, and the engineers were compensating. Indoors, this might well have held the attention throughout. Outdoors, it needed more momentum, more chance taking.

Leonard Bernstein once conducted Brahms' Fourth at the Bowl as if it were one long sex scene for a languid summer evening. Of those who were in attendance, who will ever forget it?

Tuesday, the Fourth came and went, a summation to the evening, like a nice after-dinner drink. The Philharmonic advertises the Bowl as the place in which we can "summerize" ourselves (no more winter coats). But memorable summers come from the stage, not the concession stands.

*

Paavo Jarvi conducts a program of works by Part, Beethoven (with soloist Elisabeth Batiashvili) and Sibelius, tonight at 8. $1-$76. (323) 850-2000.

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