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Slatkin and Beethoven overcome the trivial

July 13, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

BEETHOVEN'S Ninth, the composer's last symphony, is the first symphony with a cosmic scope. It begins with its head in the clouds and ends more than 70 minutes later with orchestra, chorus and four vocal soloists calling, demanding, ecstatically screaming at full volume for universal brotherhood.

How much harmony the world has achieved since this "Ode to Joy" (the Friedrich Schiller text of the last movement) was first heard in Vienna in 1824 is not a happy question. But orchestras, at least, haven't stopped agitating for brotherhood, nor have audiences given up hope. Tuesday night, the humongous Hollywood Bowl was about three-quarters full when the Los Angeles Philharmonic began its classical series this summer with the Ninth conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

This Ninth came on the heels of momentous Ninths around the country in the last two months. The extraordinary climax of the Philharmonic's Beethoven Unbound series in Walt Disney Concert Hall last season was Esa-Pekka Salonen's Ninth.

Last month, Daniel Barenboim ended his remarkable 17-year stint as music director of the Chicago Symphony with the Ninth. And last weekend, James Levine made his much-heralded conducting comeback, following a four-month recovery from rotator cuff surgery, with the Ninth to open the Boston Symphony's summer season at Tanglewood in Massachusetts.

Less weight was on Slatkin's shoulders, given that the Hollywood Bowl has increasingly entered into musical insignificance. This weekend, for instance, while John Mauceri is conducting excerpts from hokey Hollywood epics ("Ben-Hur," "Cleopatra," "El Cid"), Levine in Tanglewood will be leading the Schoenbergian and Straussian epics "Gurrelieder" and "Elektra."

But however enthusiastically the Bowl season now embraces triviality, however mindlessly Patina's food services are promoted over the Philharmonic's musical services, however hard it tries to reduce Beethoven to background for the good life, Beethoven still managed to put up a good fight Tuesday night.

First came Beethoven's Eighth. More accurately, the Eighth was sacrificed to the Ninth. This lighter, more classically contained symphony seems on the surface more about jolliness than high-minded joy, but it is a trickster score, subtly subversive. Here, it was subsumed by audience distractions, dull sound from the loudspeakers, sloppy playing and characterless conducting.

But Slatkin, who was beginning his second season as the orchestra's principal guest conductor at the Bowl with this program, knew, I think, what he was doing. Unworried about inner details, he found his energy in Beethoven's propulsive developments and railroaded them. As if taking a cue from the Bowl's picnic obsession, he made this his prep work.

The Ninth after intermission began not in otherworldly stillness; even on a clear evening with an imposing full moon, there is never worshipful stillness at the Bowl. Still, the atmosphere had become charged. By the Scherzo, Slatkin had found an animated rhythmic groove he could stick with. A rapt richness infused the Philharmonic's strings in the slow movement, and that richness became ensemble-wide in the fervent Finale. The four vocal soloists (Measha Brueggergosman, Jennifer Roderer, Matthew Polenzani and David Pittsinger) and the Los Angeles Master Chorale were closely miked and sounded vivid, exciting.

Magic is too strong a word for the Bowl in these days of cellphone chatter, food veneration and all-around inattentiveness.

But magic isn't too strong a word for Beethoven. This was not an inspired Ninth. It would do badly compared with what was heard in May downtown. It would undoubtedly do badly compared with a Ninth heard in the Tanglewood shed.

Still, Slatkin faced a much harder job than his colleagues in more congenial settings. No one, I'm sure, brought tubs of popcorn or babies to Barenboim's farewell Ninth in Chicago's Symphony Hall.

And through it all, he managed to fill the air with Beethoven, to stir the soul, to display a hint of a profound joy many degrees beyond the momentary pleasures the Bowl now preaches. This may not have been a great Ninth, but it wasn't an unimportant one either.

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