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Slatkin loosens up at Bowl

September 16, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's final concert of this summer's Hollywood Bowl season Thursday night began with an ode to sanctified janitorial art. It ended with the deflowering of a virgin to the accompaniment of phallic fireworks erupting with all the kitschy outrageousness of an old Ken Russell film. Leonard Slatkin, who conducted, introduced the program by calling it a traversal from the sacred to the profane.

I suppose that's one way to look at it. From sanctified outsider art to Nazi insider is another. Whatever your take, it was all very Hollywood if not very Hollywood Bowl.

Slatkin has approached his position as principal Philharmonic guest conductor at the Bowl with uncharacteristic caution. But Thursday, the end of his second season, he finally trusted easily distracted picnickers to pay attention to a 20-minute work by a young composer he has been championing, before turning to Orff's "Carmina Burana" and pyrotechnics.

The composer is Jefferson Friedman, who is 31. The work was "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly," which Slatkin premiered two years ago in Washington, D.C., where he is music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Last season, he conducted it with the New York Philharmonic.

As in "Carmina," there is much to like musically in "Throne," as long as you hold your nose. The political implications in both scores are troubling. Orff was, if not a Nazi sympathizer, at least a National Socialist opportunist.

Friedman takes his inspiration innocently enough from the outsider artist James Hampton, a D.C. janitor who created remarkable constructions out of discarded bits of paper, glass, wood, gold and silver foil.

The elaborate construction, which Hampton never finished and was found after his death in 1964, is an extraordinary creation of wild visionary religious folk art, for which the murky black-and-white photo in the program book did no justice. (The projection on the video screens was even worse.)

Still, Friedman's music supplied all the color you might want. He gets a bright, lush, warmly attractive and psychedelically engrossing sound. Trumpets and trombones are seated to ring the strings. Two string quartets split off to the shell's far reaches, right and left. Everything is amplified, but the sound system handled directionality reasonably well.

Friedman's extravagant use of the orchestra includes much time spent going up and down the scale with thick string chords, trilling piccolos and embellishing trumpets.

Hampton's glassworks are represented by Friedman's glassy percussion. A glamorously gussied-up hymn tune makes a big point.

"Throne," which is to be the centerpiece of an outsider art orchestral triptych, is, of course, anything but outsider art and comes dangerously close to condescension. If you want outsider art at the Bowl, you hardly need to look far -- California has been home to the world's best. But Harry Partch and Lou Harrison remain outsiders at the Bowl.

Ironically, Friedman is thus far the most interesting when he steps outside himself. He has recently made some striking arrangements for the electronica group Matmos' new CD, "The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast." He bears watching.

"Carmina Burana," which included the participation of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Children's Chorus, wasn't particularly tidy. Slatkin went for bombast, which was probably the right choice for the Bowl. Soprano Mary Wilson, tenor Lawrence Brownlee and baritone Hugh Russell were the hard-working soloists.

Gene Evans' fireworks were fabulous. "Sweetest boy," the soprano sang, "I give my all to you." Pillars of fire spewed forth delightfully removing the chill from the night air. The sky burst into crazy, wonderful colors during the final chorus about fickle Fortune smiling on some, not others.

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