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The new chapter in a strange history

Pianist O'Riley and conductor Shinozaki travel a rocky path in Grieg concerto.

September 04, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The Grieg Piano Concerto has a wonderfully outrageous history at the Hollywood Bowl. An engrossing, impulsive performance by the flamboyant pianist and composer Percy Grainger and the equally showy conductor Leopold Stokowski in the summer of 1945 survives from a radio broadcast and is available on a Music & Arts CD. And the nuttiest performance of this much loved, beautifully made Romantic concerto (or of any concerto) I have ever heard occurred at the Bowl in the '80s. Pianist Russell Sherman attempted to play it very, very slowly and with soulful liberty, while unbending early-music-specialist conductor Christopher Hogwood fought him every chaotic step of the way.

Tuesday night in the Cahuenga Pass, the soloist for the Grieg was Christopher O'Riley, who has been attracting attention lately for his New Age-y solo piano arrangements of Radiohead songs. In charge of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was Yasuo Shinozaki, the orchestra's propulsive assistant conductor. This time, there were no fireworks, just rocky going.

O'Riley began promisingly with a splendidly bold piano flourish. Subsequently, his touch -- clear, clean, brilliant -- sometimes paid off and sometimes not, in a performance that could turn uncharacteristically choppy and uncertain.

Shinozaki, for his part, pressed the orchestra ahead seemingly sympathetically, but not always in sync with the soloist. It was a worried reading, evidently underprepared.

Shinozaki has proved an excellent assistant conductor, and the Philharmonic has -- with too little fanfare -- extended his contract for a third season. His propulsiveness is of a particularly attractive kind because it is without undue aggression. Through taut rhythms and an interesting ear for timbre, he incites a positive energy offset by a generous expansiveness for lyrical passages.

But as a young conductor, he lacks the experience to pull the Philharmonic out of its late-summer, day-after-Labor-Day, Hollywood-Bowl-drags-into-September doldrums. The two popular Russian scores on the second half of the program, Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije" Suite and Borodin's Second Symphony, are seldom heard these days, and they suffered from the minimal rehearsal typical for Bowl concerts. Phrase after phrase sounded as though another couple of run-throughs were needed.

Still, it was a pleasure to hear at the Bowl really good film music, and Shinozaki was alert to the tart orchestration in "Kije," although the sound system added its arbitrary highlighting and lowlighting of instruments (strong solo cello, nearly inaudible solo bass).

The Japanese conductor's enthusiastic performance of the Borodin showed a certain unfussy flair for heroic and heartfelt music well worth the occasional dusting-off.

Shinozaki will return to the Bowl next week for Mahler's more familiar (to the orchestra) First. Especially intriguing is the prospect of his first Disney Hall concert in the fall, during which he will lead a better-prepared Philharmonic in one of Toru Takemitsu's most captivating scores, "From Me Flows What You Call Time," along with Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique."

Tip to those planing to line up for single Disney tickets when they go on sale Sunday: That may be one of the easier Philharmonic concerts to get into.

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