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Hitting the right spiritual tone in 9/11 tribute

Principal guest conductor Leonard Slatkin leaves his post at the Bowl on an all-American note.

September 14, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Change in everything but food prices comes slowly at the Hollywood Bowl. Leonard Slatkin hasn't been able to liven up programming quite as much as he said he hoped when he began as Los Angeles Philharmonic principal guest conductor at the Bowl in 2005.

But three summers is a short span in the life of an 800-pound gorilla. And some progress has been made. Slatkin began his final week as the Philharmonic's principal Bowler on Tuesday with the kind of diverse and interesting all-American program he is known for. A lot of territory got covered, familiar and otherwise. Best of all, he caught, in a way few have, exactly the right spiritual tone for the anniversary of Sept. 11.

He started with "Appalachian Spring," which he described as perhaps the perfect American piece for the occasion in its "cautious message of hope." Copland's score stands at the center of the American musical experience, a populist work written for an experimental artist -- dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

The music is both abstract and evocative of its title. Copland wrote unprogrammatic music (neither Appalachia nor springtime was part of the original concept). Shaker life, though, is alluded to, as are life's seasons. Simple spirituality and jazz rhythms were, in Copland's style, flip sides of the same American coin.

Slatkin led a heartfelt performance that had the feeling of a comforting ritual. He did not unearth new riches in Copland's beautiful suite. He did not jazz anything up. Forceful but not pushy, he simply let the music be. The composer conducted his music like that too.

To complete what Slatkin characterized as a pastoral first half, Edgar Meyer appeared as soloist in his First Bass Concerto. His Nashville roots and country music credentials are genuine, but Appalachia these days has about as much to do with Meyer as it did with Copland. Meyer has become the model cosmopolitan bassist, at home in nearly any music style you can imagine, as comfortable with Bach as with bluegrass.

The Bass Concerto goes here and there stylistically with natural ease -- so much ease, in fact, that a little something jarring would be welcome just to liven things up. But mainly it is a vehicle for a great virtuoso. In white shirt and suspenders, with his sleeves rolled up, Meyer did his dazzling work.

After intermission, Slatkin, now more urban-minded, turned to jazz. In the '50s, the composer and jazz authority Gunther Schuller coined the term "Third Stream" for his merger of classical composition and jazz. The 1959 "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee" is his best-known example.

Slatkin made an excellent case for a return to favor of a score that no longer is regularly encountered. He rightly pointed out that Schuller was probably more inspired by Klee's descriptive titles than by the actual abstract paintings (which were shown briefly and not very well on the video screens). Schuller created hypnotic Arab music for an "Arab Village." A "Twittering Machine" properly requires the orchestra to be all atwitter. The styles don't clash, but they do rub against one another in ways that were once striking and have not lost their panache after nearly half a century.

Finally, there was "Rhapsody in Blue," which started the whole interaction between jazz and concert music. The shocker of 1924 is now, of course, a classic, with which the likes of United Airlines have absconded for crass commercial use. Slatkin invited Michel Camilo, a jazz pianist with an astonishing keyboard technique, to be soloist.

Camilo doesn't improvise on music meant to be played as written. But he does play it his way. His fingers fly. There is a little Vladimir Horowitz, a lot of Art Tatum and a hint of Chico Marx in his keyboard antics. He races ahead. He sexes up the rhythms. He remains unruffled as the orchestra is forced, in a less-than-merry scramble, to keep up. I don't know how one could not be won over by such playing.

Meyer and Camilo both took encores (although not together, which would have been interesting). And the Philharmonic players showed off their prowess. It was a special night for the winds. Catherine Ransom Karoly was the seductive flutist in the "Klee," and Michele Zukovsky gets credit for the slippery-smooth opening clarinet solo in "Rhapsody in Blue."


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