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Intimate Beethoven within a vast setting

Not to worry. Christian Zacharias' musical gifts work just as well outdoors as in.

August 07, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

A beautiful balmy evening. Blissful Beethoven. The Bowl. Although they had to dodge a helicopter or two, the alliteration gods beamed Tuesday night over the Cahuenga Pass.

The title of the Hollywood Bowl program was "Nothing but Beethoven." Christian Zacharias, who conducted and was solo pianist in the First Piano Concerto, made his debut in the large amphitheater. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was not "nothing but." We've reached the dog days of August, when many players are absent. Musicians seldom in the spotlight tried out a few of the first desk chairs. The ubiquitous camera pans of the orchestra on the video screens displayed the occasional unfamiliar substitute face.

A cynic could grouse. Ushers act as border guards before the concert and during intermission yet allow free-flowing crossings during an angelic slow movement to picnic-centric latecomers. Those who don't bring their own are subject to Patina's ever-rising prices.

But the alliteration gods are not to be discounted. It was a terrific concert. And the crowd of more than 10,358 that turned up on a weeknight for Beethoven from a non-celebrity conductor and pianist was roughly the same size as Saturday night's for an Eric Idle extravaganza. The culture gods still matter as well.

Varied background

Zacharias is an interesting character. A German pianist who won the Van Cliburn Competition 25 years ago, he was born in India and trained in both Germany and France. He specializes in the first Viennese school of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. But he has a knack for Schumann and Brahms, as well as late 19th century and early 20th century French composers (French music dominates his program at the Bowl tonight).

As a pianist, he has a sparkling clean sound. He phrases with Cartesian logic, but he likes to smooth things out with a dollop of Viennese cream. He dips a toe into early music performing practice, favoring light textures. But he is essentially a modern musician who looks back.

As a conductor, he can appear a little strange. He doesn't use a baton, and his podium manner might be described as a cross between a monk and a punch-drunk boxer. His Beethoven is intimate. Its most bountiful moments had the character of a blessing. But in more dramatic passages, he was more a brawler, swinging wildly yet getting fastidious results.

Having made his U.S. conducting debut with the Philharmonic in 2000, Zacharias has since been something of the orchestra's house classicist. He is brought into Disney Hall regularly for a couple of palate-cleansing weeks of Mozart and Haydn in the midst of a busy season of Romantic and modern music.

Whether his refined, chamber-like style would play in the Bowl was a question answered immediately. Sharp chords brought the crowd to attention at the beginning of the "Coriolan" Overture. An interesting play of inner voices, particularly from the violas, gave the overture a continuing sense of drive.

The concerto performance was extroverted and virtuosic, while remaining clearly within Classical-period bounds. Leading this exuberant work from the piano is not unheard of (Beethoven did just that at its premiere), but it does take a lot more doing than conducting Mozart from a keyboard. Here, the balance between the piano (which glittered) and the orchestra, particularly the winds, proved deeply satisfying.

Breezy symphony

The "Pastoral" almost seemed to play itself. Beethoven's outing in the country is an obvious choice for outdoor music, as Zacharias said to the audience. His approach was smooth and evenhanded. The weather didn't particularly threaten, although it hardly seemed a coincidence the evening's only breeze occurred on cue. The California state flag unfurled and its bear came to life just when the symphony announced it should. The breeze died down just when Beethoven's expansive nature turned more glowingly mystical.

The notion of a second-string Philharmonic is meaningless. Technique runs deep, and the rank-and-file players love to show how they can rise to the occasion. Tuesday they did. The orchestra was, all night, alert, gracious and responsive. The strings in the last movement of the "Pastoral" were able to produce a convincing representation of heaven.



French Masters

What: Christian Zacharias conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood

When: 8 tonight

Price: $1-$95

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or

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