Hollywood Bowl

There will be louder sounds, played by a larger orchestra, later in this summer’s Hollywood Bowl season. It’s doubtful, however, whether any future concert will include more exquisite music, better played, than was offered by this past weekend’s two all-Mozart “preview” concerts by a cut-down Los Angeles Philharmonic under its two assistant conductors — David Alan Miller on Friday night, Heichiro Ohyama on Saturday. Previews they might have been (in terms of a reduced orchestra at reduced ticket prices), but the crowds were of mid-season size: nearly 11,000 on Friday, over 12,000 on Saturday. Don’t tell me people don’t know a good thing when they see it.
Cutting back the orchestra — three stands of first and second violins, two basses — did wonders for Mozart’s scoring, as both conductors clearly understood. In Miller’s marvelously warm-hearted, expansive reading of Mozart’s 39th Symphony the plangent sounds of winds and brasses — clarinets and horns in a velvety sonority punctuated by soft chords from trumpets and drums — held their own against the strings as they seldom do in full-scale performances.
The same happened in Ohyama’s nicely controlled version of No. 41 (the “Jupiter”) on Saturday, again with winds and brass quietly marking time against the cascading passage-work from muted strings in that slow movement of indescribable, poignant beauty. It was all Mozart at his most magical, in the capable hands of two young conductors who knew the secrets of letting this music sing out at its own pace. (If only Ohyama had honored Mozart’s specified repeats in the first movement and finale, as Miller had the night before, the pace would have been even surer.)
Jean-Pierre Rampal was the soloist on Friday night, in Mozart’s G-major  Concerto and two single movements for flute and orchestra.  Has he been playing at being Rampal a little too long? I remember concerts (at New York’s “Mostly Mozart” especially) when this jovial Frenchman and his magic flute held a capacity audience in some kind of trance as the ethereal tones of his instrument hung weightless in the air. This didn’t happen this time.
Granted, it isn’t all that easy to put 11,000 listeners into a trance, what with helicopters overhead and wine bottles clanking. But Rampal might have tried; that’s what performance is all about. Instead I heard lazy phrasing, blurred passagework, a definite sense of “it’s Friday so this must be the Bowl.” Artists do get that way sometimes, and the smart ones know to take a vacation from fame at that point, perhaps to go off and look at sunsets.
There were no such problems on Saturday, when Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich took on the awesome challenge of the C-major Piano Concerto (K-503). He isn’t merely one of our best pianists; he’s one of our best Mozart pianists, which is the mark of superior insights and intelligence. This concerto makes enormous intellectual demands; it is seldom played for just that reason. Its substance arrives in fragmented state at the start of each movement, and each time only comes together later. “Craggy,” even “austere,” are applicable adjectives; the composer, already at work on his “Don Giovanni” seems — here, as there — to entertain visions of a future kind of music.  The genial, easy-going Mozart of our familiar image arrives late, a sublime but brief moment midway in the finale when winds and soloists engage in that special kind of Mozartian dialogue that always brings tears.
The performance was worthy of the music: the pianist’s vivid, beautifully spacious performance (including a stylish first-movement cadenza of his own making), and the superior collaboration of Ohyama and the orchestra. Music doesn’t get much better than this; the Bowl season is happily launched.