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Music review: Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer cavort at the Bowl

Rising conductor Ludovic Morlot steps back to let his Hollywood Bowl violin and bass soloists display their impressive techniques.

July 18, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Joshua Bell (left) joins classical/bluegrass bassist Edgar Meyer in Meyer's Double Concerto for violin and bass with French music director, Ludovic Morlot conducting.
Joshua Bell (left) joins classical/bluegrass bassist Edgar Meyer in Meyer's… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The news from the Hollywood Bowl this week might have been that Ludovic Morlot is guest conductor. Last fall, the 38-year-old Frenchman blew into the Pacific Northwest like a blast of fresh symphonic air. As the new music director of the Seattle Symphony, he added a heady mix of work by young local composers and progressive pop to a traditional menu of classics. He also has just begun as music director of La Monnaie, Brussels' importantly venturesome opera company.

He thus seems the perfect fusion chef to turn the amphitheater into a proper mixing Bowl, and there was some of that in the program Tuesday night (to be repeated on Thursday). But Morlot, who happens to be a violinist, was decidedly second fiddle. He was assigned no major orchestral works, merely two opera overtures by Carl Maria von Weber, which he led with tantalizing vitality and lucidity.

This was, rather, a two-concerto affair, and the evening belonged to violinist Joshua Bell and to bassist Edgar Meyer.

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The first half featured the West Coast premiere of Meyer's Double Concerto for violin and bass, with both Bell and Meyer as soloists. Bell ended the night with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.

The real mix master was Meyer, who has made a career of crossing various forms of roots music with classical, and for taking some big names — such as Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Hilary Hahn — along with him.

The new Double Concerto was given its premiere by the Boston Symphony 10 days earlier as part of the opening weekend festivities for the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood (a waste of the BSO, said the Boston Globe). It also has already had a performance at the Aspen Festival in Colorado.

That's some fast-moving concerto. But it's a work that is light on its feet, as are its soloists. Bell and Meyer, students together in Indiana two decades ago, are old friends. Both are lithe virtuosos with antsy sensibilities. They like to range.

Meyer's concerto uses a smallish orchestra and is surprisingly modest. It contains little bits of a lot of styles, smushed together. Bluegrass riffs flit through Indian rhythmic cycles, reminding us that three years ago Meyer produced a triple concerto for himself, bluegrass mandolinist Béla Fleck and Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain.

What is surprising, though, in the elephant-and-fly partnership of bass and violin, is that Meyer is the more elegantly restrained of the two. He enjoys the occasional low roar, but he frequently played Tuesday in his instrument's sweetly mellow alto range. He, moreover, asked for only three orchestral basses, intentionally producing a bass-shy ensemble string sound.

Recurring, engaging melodic figures were the most engaging aspect of the concerto's three movements. The first proved contrapuntally sociable, the soloists in perky partnerships not only with each other but also with various solo instruments in the orchestra (in a flute and violin duet, the flute, at least as amplified, dominated).

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The second movement moved in the direction of sentimentality. The third flowed with an impressively seamless mix of bluegrassy funk and funky Indian rhythms. A rhythmically tricky light orchestral backup was meant to sound deceptively laid back. It did.

Each half of the program opened with the Weber overtures ("Der Freischütz" and "Oberon"), and Morlot made them brilliantly electric. The orchestra remained small all evening. The conductor, unusually for the Bowl, divided the violins and put the basses on his left (or maybe the bassists put themselves there, after having been rained on in their normal spot last Thursday). The result was transparency and a tactile sound curiously suitable for amplification.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto stood in for a big orchestral finish. And that is how it was treated. Bell played for whopping effects, and Morlot gave him symphonic support. The violinist also supplied his own first-movement cadenza, which was full of the dazzling technical feats for which he is celebrated. As a composer, Bell channeled Mendelssohn's style remarkably, if weirdly (given that close to two centuries have passed), well.

Meyer and Bell please by reinforcing what we know. They fill seats, which matters much in a shaky arts economy. Morlot, though, seems a young man attuned to a future worth taking a chance on.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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

When: 8 p.m. Thu.

Price: $1-$133.

Info: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.org

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