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Hooked on the Requiem

The Hollywood Bowl isn't the perfect space for Berlioz's sonic

September 12, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Every performance at the Hollywood Bowl is supposed to be an occasion. Thousands of listeners gather. Rehearsal time is at a premium, so there is always the possibility of spontaneity. Anything, one trusts, can happen, whether or not Liza Minnelli is on stage.

But it never hurts to have, on occasion, an actual piece d'occasion. Berlioz's Requiem, which Bramwell Tovey conducted Thursday night to conclude the Los Angeles Philharmonic's summer season, is just such a glorious monster.

Made for a great space -- Paris' cavernous St. Louis of the Invalides cathedral -- the score was originally intended to accommodate a chorus of 800 (the composer only got a quarter that number) and a supersized orchestra, including a dozen timpani individually tuned to play thunder chords along with surround-sound brass. This was 1837, and the unprecedented sonic scope of the Requiem made an effect. "Even the dullest minds," the poet Heinrich Heine said of the first performance, "were carried away by the force of the genius."

The Bowl stage is big and could have held Berlioz's dream number of performers Thursday had there been no limits on the disposable cash in the L.A. Philharmonic's coffers. Still, a quite full orchestra, the large Los Angeles Master Chorale, a long row of kettle drums, brass bands on either side of the stage and two additional brass bands by the side light towers in the amphitheater, gave a decent sense of the scope of this extraordinary Requiem. Surely even the dullest minds (wine does flow at the Bowl) this night knew this was something special.

The last time these musicians tackled the Requiem was five years ago at the end of the first Walt Disney Concert Hall season, giving the new space a seismic test. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a tight, fast, killer performance attuned to Berlioz's curious colors, striking harmonies and vastly entertaining theatrical vision of an afterlife unlike anything we know of from our mundane existence.

Tovey, who is the orchestra's principal guest conductor at the Bowl, didn't dawdle Thursday either. His was a chipper Requiem, not quite so well prepared, what with the Bowl schedule, but very well controlled. Mainly, though, the British conductor, who often shows a fondness for oddball works, made excellent sense of Berlioz's extravaganzas.

But Berlioz's conception can't help but suffer in this amphitheater, which is exactly the opposite, acoustically, of a boomingly reverberant cathedral. Loud speakers must do all the heavy sonic lifting, and the soundstage felt flat with a tinfoil backing. I would have particularly liked a more spectacular brass spread. Were there no daring players willing to risk being on top of the side towers, rather than at their base?

Berlioz addicts, however, take what we can get. After the quiet, crowd-settling Kyrie, Tovey physically revved the chorus, which sang with persuasive fervor throughout, redlining through the first three gears, ever faster, until the quadraphonic brass woke up and the timpani hit their chords with a rumble that challenged the shell's huge subwoofers to say nothing of the grumble of overhead police helicopters. Berlioz addicts live for moments like that.

By then, you are hooked or you are not. Berlioz loved to alternate the crash of thunder with spellbound quiet. His sense of space was many- dimensioned. He might use piccolo and tuba to describe the extremes while leaving an enormous gap in the center. You need space to house these contrasts, and the Bowl served as a fine container in this regard.

Only one vocal soloist is called for and not until near the end, in the Sanctus, where a tenor, echoed by the chorus, sings a rapt melody against a halo of four solo violins and, later, supernatural cymbal crashes. James Taylor was hard-pressed on his top notes, but his tenor solo created a romantic atmosphere gently guiding a listener's attention heavenward. By this point the Bowl's sound system had found its equilibrium. The effect was almost unbearably lovely.

Many a multichannel living room hi-fi could surpass the sound of Berlioz at the Bowl. You need a Disney, or Invalides itself, to suit Berlioz's fabulous sounds. But, in the end, Tovey beat the odds. Thursday was an occasion.


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