Onstage and out front, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Simon Rattle filled the
Hollywood Bowl quite handsomely on Tuesday night. If the Beethoven Ninth can
draw one of the season’s largest crowds (17,073, just 900 short of capacity),
there’s hope for civilization after all. The night began wondrously well. Rattle led his reduced orchestral forces
(minus violins and violas) and the Los Angeles Master Chorale through a quiet,
radiant probing of Stravinsky’s short masterwork, his elegant and austere
“Symphony of Psalms” created in 1930 for the Boston Symphony’s 50th
anniversary. It’s not exactly an inviting work, with its colors all muted
bronze and silver. Rattle’s performance, remarkable especially for its quiet,
unhurried unfolding, made the work come alive even in the Bowl’s overlarge
space. The Beethoven Ninth fared less well. It had the feel of a learning process: a
conductor still in his mid-30s trying things out, testing how far he can get
away with bending Beethoven’s designs toward a personal statement. It came off
as a curious mingling of authenticity and wilfulness. The authentic touches
were excellent, with all repeats honored and with the orchestra, for once,
seated in proper classical formation with the first and second violins
downstage and the lower strings to the rear. But there were strange goings-on with changes of tempo, to underline effects
that Beethoven had made abundantly clear on their own. It seemed almost as if
the young conductor hadn’t yet come to trust the work, hadn’t quite gotten the
hang of the music’s own marvelous sense of flow. He wasn’t helped much by the vocal soloists, by Terry Cook’s delivery of the
baritone invocation, with its register break that made it sound as if to
unalike voices were sharing the line or Robert Tear’s tenor solo, strangulated
and unfocussed. Soprano Alison Hargan and mezzo Alfreda Hodgson sounded
merely okay, but Beethoven’s cruel writing for these soloists is no way to
judge a singer’s quality. With all its problems, and under a constant flow of air traffic sufficient to
cover the Normandy invasion, this was a recognizable Beethoven Ninth. It may,
for all anyone knows, carry the seeds of a great Ninth from Simon Rattle
sometime in the future. It’s not quite there, however.