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Bowl embraces a new face

Early music specialist Harry Bicket conquers the sprawling venue with humor and ease.

August 26, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Harry Bicket, one of the rising stars of the early music movement, has conducted here in the past. He manned the pit for Los Angeles Opera's "Giulio Cesare" three years ago. His performance was exciting but rushed -- perhaps he was in a hurry to get through a long opera and muddled production.

Tuesday night, Bicket made his Hollywood Bowl debut, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an unusually unhackneyed program that revolved around late Haydn and early Mendelssohn and included a rare bit by Mozart's supposed nemesis (if you believe everything you see in the movies), Antonio Salieri.

The Bowl is a challenge for early musickers, who like little sounds in little rooms for their often obscure old music and elitist patrons; the amphitheater is a humongous, up-to-date pleasure garden where wine flows freely and some in the crowd are unafraid to do whatever they feel like. But Bicket overcame most Bowl obstacles with refreshing ease.

Thanks to the video screens added this year, a new conductor is now introduced to the audience during the national anthem. That means that a listener willing to restrain patriotic ardor enough to focus on the conductor was rewarded by the opportunity to see every small expression on Bicket's face. He has a crisp, near-military baton style, but a raised eyebrow here, a subtly bemused smile there -- although never disrespectful to the Stars and Stripes -- revealed just a hint of impishness. And impishness in the scholarly world of early music is always a good thing.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Salieri opera -- A review of a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert in the Aug. 26 Calendar Weekend section implied that Antonio Salieri's opera "La Secchia Rapita" premiered in 1792. It premiered in 1772.

The overture to Salieri's opera "La Secchia Rapita" (The Stolen Bucket) is nothing memorable, but it is light, amusing, tuneful and nothing like you might expect from the dour character in "Amadeus." The performance sped along happily, although it seemed, at least in my neck of the Bowl woods, not to hold the attention of particularly antsy picnickers, which meant it was probably historically accurate, since this music most likely fared no better with rowdy 18th century operagoers.

Haydn's Symphony No. 104 ("London") comes from almost the same time. Its premiere was in 1795, three years after Salieri's opera debuted. It's everything Salieri's music is not: buoyant yet substantial, clever yet full of tender emotion.

Bicket did a terrific job with it. His reading was efficient and quick, yet alert to rich detail and color. The Philharmonic was small-sized for the evening and spot-on to a degree that doesn't happen very often in the summer, given that Bowl rehearsal time is not generous.

After intermission, Bicket led Mendelssohn's little-known Concerto for Violin and Piano. Written when the composer was but 14, the concerto would be even less known were it not for Gidon Kremer, who loves it; he played it at the Bowl in the '80s and recorded it with Martha Argerich. The recording is hilarious -- arguably the two most electrifying instrumentalists before the public today going to town for a lengthy, sometimes banal, sometimes inspired work by a young composer still finding his voice.

The soloists Tuesday were young musicians worth paying attention to. They did not go overboard. The violinist, Yura Lee, born in Korea in 1985, is a rapt player. The pianist, Shai Wosner, an Israeli born in 1976, has a fussier style, and Mendelssohn provided him with less interesting music. But both were engaging, and Bicket's taut, rhythmically incisive conducting still allowed them a few openings for their own youthful, Romantic exuberance.

The concerto didn't sound too bad over the speakers either. The Bowl keeps working on its acoustical woes, and the amplified sound was more natural than anything I'd heard in the venue this summer. But now there are echoes to deal with. In the Haydn, we got two symphonies for the price of one. A new screen behind the orchestra may be the culprit. But, please, bring in the echo-busters.

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