Stephane Deneve conducts the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in an all Russian… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
It was not a typical Russian night at the Hollywood Bowl.
The violin concerto Tuesday was not by Tchaikovsky. The Mussorgsky work was not "Pictures at an Exhibition." Rachmaninoff did not mean the Los Angeles Philharmonic had to hire a piano soloist. Best of all, Leopold Stokowski, whose name is normally restricted to historical artifacts in the Bowl museum, popped up on the program.
The French deserve the credit for this curious lack of Slavic cliché. Stéphane Denève is this week's resident conductor; French Canadian violinist Martin Chalifour, the L.A. Phil's masterful concertmaster, was Tuesday's soloist in Julius Conus' Violin Concerto, a favorite of Jascha Heifetz but a rarity these days.
Denève told the audience that Rachmaninoff was the composer whom his unusual program revolved around. The connection with Conus' 1898 concerto is that in 1932 Conus' son Boris married Rachmaninoff's daughter Tatiana. The conductor and arranger Stokowski's wonderfully thrill-seeking Symphonic Synthesis of music from Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" opened the program, and the conductor/arranger and Rachmaninoff were good friends. The program ended with Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, the composer's last and most audacious work.
Even so, French accents dominated. When Denève introduced the program, he struggled to pronounce synthesis (a word particularly difficult, he noted, for the French). But then again Stokowski, who was once a regular at the Bowl (he founded the Hollywood Bowl Symphony in 1945), liked to add his own accents to his arrangements. He used Mussorgsky's original rough-hewn orchestration as his starting point when he made his orchestral condensation of several big moments in "Boris" in 1936, but he added plenty of his own Hollywood-y effects.
The British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, who resurrected this forgotten synthesis in the mid '90s, conducting it with the L.A. Phil and recording it with the Cleveland Orchestra, wrote that Stokowski's radical use of percussion here had the feel of the visionary American composer Charles Ives.
Denève, however, made it sound French Stravinskian, with echoes of "Rite of Spring."
And there were even infuriating echoes of the notorious riot that vandalized the first performance of the "Rite" in Paris. A helicopter pilot — a Russian purist, perhaps? — who buzzed the Cahuenga Pass during the performance was the vandal Tuesday. There isn't, but there ought to be, a law.
Conus' concerto is a sweet thing. Violin students learn it but almost never get a chance to play it. It's the only major score by the composer, who was a noted violinist, and a youthful work — Conus premiered it at age 29. Tchaikovsky's influence rings out in the not very inventive orchestral accompaniment. But the solo part is lushly melodic and pleasingly virtuosic.
Chalifour is an unlikely exponent of the concerto. His tone is relatively light. He is an outstandingly agile player. As concertmaster he plays a very important part in giving the L.A. Phil its versatile edge in modern music. He seems born to play Stravinsky.
The violinist honeyed Conus' tunes with plenty of vibrato, but he didn't lay the Romanticism on too thick. He never completely lost his tart, crystalline French sound. That proved a most happy compromise. Thanks to Chalifour the music, unfamiliar to most (Heifetz's classic recordings were made in Hollywood nearly 60 years ago in the mono LP era), sounded almost fresh yet somehow habitual. So after this nice occasional outing, the concerto can now go back in the closet for a spell.
Denève did not probe Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances' depths as Simon Bychkov had with the L.A. Phil at Disney Hall last season. This was, instead, a snazzy performance. Despite a few dead spots in slow sections, there was spirit in the fast ones. Again Denève's accent was French. He let Rachmaninoff swing, and he brought out splashes of color. The helicopter apparently knew to stay away.