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Bright, shining moments at Bowl

July 12, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

THE first Tuesday night of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Hollywood Bowl season was once a swell event. Servants served socialites oysters and caviar on china from elaborate picnic baskets. Men wore fedoras. Ladies donned mink stoles to ward off the chill. Everyone smoked, and the Bowl was radiant with thousands of pretty points of light. Heifetz or Rubinstein played Tchaikovsky.

Well, at least, there was still Tchaikovsky on Tuesday.

Official Opening Night has become yet another overproduced celebrity gala in June, replete with prepackaged cocktail receptions and dinners for the big spenders. Preseason is no longer for the plebes.

Still, the Philharmonic's opening remains a little bit more than just another night of symphonies under the stars. There are fireworks in the sky and, if we are lucky, on the stage.

We were lucky: Gil Shaham was the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. His was old-school, big-personality, enormously engaging Tchaikovsky playing, sort of Isaac Stern with ants in his pants. Leonard Slatkin conducted suitably and well.

The orchestra may have threatened to overpower the violinist at points in the first movement, but that was an electronic issue; the balance is a product of the sound engineers, and it always takes awhile for the amplification to adjust to the dropping evening temperatures and for our ears to adapt.

But the righting didn't take long, and by the middle of the first movement, Shaham was dominating the concerto and holding the audience riveted. He doesn't do anything particularly fancy. His tone is sweet and full. His technique is slick and easy, like that of most modern virtuosos. He values clarity and accuracy. He is good with rhythm.

But he plays with a sense of wonder. For once I was glad for the video, for a camera lingering long on the soloist's face and fingers. Shaham's oneness with the music won us all over, and after the big first-movement cadenza, the audience burst into applause. I've never heard that happen before, and I wonder whether Shaham had either. The cameras obscure nothing, and we could witness close-up his attempts to stifle a smile.

It was an endearing moment, perhaps inspiring the young violinist to add a touch of sentimentality into the Canzonetta (a touch is nice, a gob -- which is more typical -- can be revolting) and then play the last movement like one big rock 'n' roll wow. A happily propulsive Slatkin accommodated.

The evening began with the feel-good frenzy of Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla" Overture and ended with feel-good fireworks accompanying Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." "Pictures" is a Slatkin specialty. Although he has explored various orchestrations of Mussorgsky's solo piano piece, he returned here to the popular Ravel version, with a few small additions of his own.

Here was Slatkin's turn for a bit of bravado. He made the pictures vibrant. At first, I fretted about the missed opportunity of using the video to display Viktor Hartmann's paintings, which Mussorgsky's score keenly describe. Slatkin once said he hoped to do just that at the Bowl. In the end, the Philharmonic was best left to do evoking. Who wants to see Hartmann's cows when Slatkin dug into "Bydlo" with such enthusiasm?

Fireworks accompanied "Baba Yaga" (The Hut on Fowl's Legs) and "The Great Gate of Kiev" with what approached a blazing ballet. Gene Evans' pyrotechnics can elevate the most pedestrian Bowl nights to glory. The timing was terrific Tuesday, yet the effects, however beautiful, proved predictable.

Fire has a mind of its own, and fireworks suggest, to my mind, freedom. On the Fourth, we give permission for music to burst forth and the sky explode, each unfettered. In Tchaikovsky, Shaham unleashed sonic fireworks by making his exorbitantly trained fingers seem spontaneous, volatile, liberated. In "Pictures," Evans tamed fire.

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