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MUSIC REVIEW

'New World' order for Philharmonic

Miguel Harth-Bedoya alters the program to lead with Dvorak. But interpretation and amplification fall short.

September 06, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's associate conductor, tried an experiment Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl. He inverted the original order of the program, putting Dvorak's "New World" Symphony first and following it with Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" and Robert Russell Bennett's "Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture."

The idea, he said from the stage, was for us to hear the longest piece first, when our ears were fresh, and to end the concert on an "up" beat.

The experiment didn't quite work, but the order of the program may have been the least of the problems.

Dvorak's symphony sounded as if the players were doing a run-through to make sure everyone had the notes, with no one having much time to think about interpretation. Still, like the rest of the evening, it also aroused suspicion that the orchestra was giving Harth-Bedoya pretty much what he wanted.

To compound matters, the Bowl's amplification, which earlier in the season had been something to love, made the brass and winds sound tinny and thin, although the strings were rich and full. On the other hand, the sound system seemed primed for Bennett's orchestral distillation of "Porgy and Bess."

There was a time -- shame on us -- when a case had to be made in the classical world for Gershwin's opera. Bennett's "Symphonic Picture," first done in 1943, played a part in getting the music out there, and not just the big tunes. But its beefed-up dance-band arrangements and invented transitions sound dated and quaint these days when we know the work and prefer our Gershwin straight.

The Philharmonic played it with silky, Hollywood-film-studio smoothness, which isn't exactly what you want for this emotionally explosive score.

At the opening of Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," by contrast, there's a danger that the lilting rhythms will turn into short, sing-song phrases. This was a pitfall not entirely avoided by Harth-Bedoya and soprano soloist Elissa Johnston. The composer's musical gifts may have been limited, but they included an uncanny ability to set the natural rhythms of English prose. Interpreters need a long, flexible line and some sense of rubato.

Still, Johnston's sense of child-like innocence -- the narrator is perhaps 6 years old -- was appealing. And she and Harth-Bedoya were fully responsive when this passage from James Agee's "A Death in the Family" plunged into the child's sudden and profound awareness of mortality, so deepened by Barber's wonderful music.

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