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Revisiting favorites at the Bowl

September 13, 2012|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC
  • Zev Yaroslavsky swaps his county supervisor hat for a virtual stovepipe in Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”
Zev Yaroslavsky swaps his county supervisor hat for a virtual stovepipe… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky may have opted out of the mayoral race and won't be running for reelection, but he is still part of the political dialogue. Tuesday night he took the Hollywood Bowl stage and proved positively Lincolnian. Instead of having to contend with such opponents as Gil Garcetti or Jan Perry, Yaroslavsky held himself up to the really formidable likes of the late Gore Vidal and Daniel Day-Lewis.

The occasion was a performance of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." The anniversary of 9/11 was honored with the wisdom of "a quiet man and a melancholy man," as Copland described the 16th president, who presciently proclaimed the dogmas of the quiet past inadequate to the stormy present. The U.S. and California flags flanked the Bowl shell at half-mast. Bramwell Tovey conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic to begin the final week of the orchestra's summer season.

The last "Lincoln Portrait" at the Bowl was five years ago, when Vidal, in high dander over America's war in Iraq, spit out his Lincoln with the righteous indignation of an Old Testament prophet, each line meant as a furious moral rejoinder to President Bush. As for Day-Lewis' Lincoln, we'll have to wait until November when Steven Spielberg's biopic is released.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 15, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood Bowl: A review in the Sept. 13 Calendar section of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl implied that Gil Garcetti is running for mayor of Los Angeles. His son, Eric Garcetti, is running for mayor.

There was, however, little theatrical flourish in Yaroslavsky's delivery on Tuesday, nor did this come across as a politician speechifying -- speechifying politician though the supervisor may be. "As I would not be a slave," Lincoln decreed, "so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy." Copland cases Lincoln's line in an eloquent orchestral setting, and for Yaroslavsky, whose musical timing was expert, the president's sentiments were not pronounced as hot oratory but rather considered instruction on to how to best proceed.

Tovey's Copland-Gershwin-Bernstein program was much like the one five years ago with Vidal, when Michael Tilson Thomas conducted works by the same American composers. Both programs also shared music from Bernstein's "West Side Story." But where Tilson Thomas illumined the symphonic sumptuousness of the composer's own Symphonic Suite from the show, Tovey was stuck with something new and different. And inexplicable.

David Newman's "West Side Story" Suite, arranged for violin and orchestra, was premiered by Sarah Chang at the Grand Teton Music Festival last summer. It might have sounded like a good idea then. The noted film composer also last summer had done an excellent job conducting the "West Side Story" soundtrack at the Bowl along with a screening of the picture.

Nor was it the first attempt to make a quasi-violin concerto out of the musical. A dozen years ago Joshua Bell recorded one and it was perfectly awful. Newman's for Chang is equally awful.

Instead of a sexy saxophone in the prologue, a violinist appropriates the part with gooey swing. When not piling on heaps of sugary sentiment to "Maria," "Somewhere," "Tonight," Chang cha-cha-ed her considerable stuff.

Tovey conducted like a sport. Video cameras captured Chang in her tight, glittery gown from creepy, oddball angles. Close-ups of the orchestra were a bad idea. When faced with this kind of thing, not every player knows to disguise his or her disgust.

The program began with Gershwin's "Cuban" Overture, oddly upbeat for 9/11 but played with moderate aplomb. The evening ended with Copland's "Billy the Kid" Suite.

Copland set the scene for his populist 1938 ballet with morose music evoking the open prairie and returned to it at the end. The ballet is colorful, with its frontier goings-on, gunfire and folksy hooting. Tovey did nothing special with it, he just let it be. The orchestra played as if it had one foot out the Bowl door.

And yet "Billy the Kid" provided surprising context to the evening. Copland celebrates the American spirit but also uses the Wild West as a lens through which to examine the complexities of patriotism. He makes the celebration of Billy's killing both entertaining and unsettling. Copland reveals how Billy and Lincoln, one operating outside of the law and one trying to make law, embodied something essentially American. They both died at the hands of those who disapproved of what they stood for.


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