With the grand, brassy rhetoric that ends Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic also sounded the final notes last Thursday for the 78th season of “Symphonies Under the Stars” at that one-of-a-kind piece of real estate known as the Hollywood Bowl. There was more to come at the Bowl: two weekends of pop-concert fare ending in splendid fireworks displays, and a night of jazz – what you’d expect, in other words, in a town known as a world-renowned shrine to terminal titillation. But the ten-week Bowl season had, as usual, included twenty programs of solid classical stuff, much of it actually challenging. The crowds had numbered anywhere from six to ten thousand, small potatoes in the 18,000-seat expanse that usually fills to capacity for the weekend pop, but impressive by symphonic standards.
There’s nothing quite like the Bowl: a summertime outdoor venue within the boundaries of a large city, reachable by public transportation, comfortable and even, given the proper attitude, delightful, offering a panorama of musical events night after night, some of them even worthwhile. The area itself bestows its benefits; the air above Cahuenga Pass cools down to a benign 65-or-so as the evening breezes blow the smog out to sea. Rain is virtually nonexistent. “Under the stars” may, however, be overly hopeful on most nights.
It’s possible to have a lousy time at the Bowl, and there are those who pridefully assert that they wouldn’t be caught dead in the place. A picknicker’s dropped wine bottle can clank down half-a-mile-or-so of concrete steps; an L.A.P.D. helicopter can choose the symphony’s most solemn slow movement to stake out a claim directly overhead; the sound quality even on high-quality outdoor amplification is no better than anywhere else; on several nights this season a resident skunk made clear its own criticism of proceedings. It’s also true that concert planning for the Bowl season tends to skirt much that smacks of hard-core in favor of more familiar fare.
Yet this summer’s take on the “familiar” had its own sense of adventure. The “oh, no, not Tchaikovsky again” crowd might have noted that there was only one of that master’s symphonies listed – and that the relatively unfamiliar Second. No apologies are needed for programming that included all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos, the long and gritty First Violin Concerto of Shostakovich (spectacularly played by Vadim Repin), over an hour’s worth of Prokofiev’s music for “Ivan the Terrible” with excerpts from Sergei Eisenstein’s masterful movie flung onto the big screen overhead. After a parade of guest conductors – among them the excellent Indonesian Jahja Ling and France’s Emmanuel Krivine, plus others less worthy of mention — and a one-week stand by the touring Russian National Orchestra, Salonen himself led the last six programs; they included his first-time-ever knockout performance of the Mahler First (an out-of-town tryout, you might say, for his Music Center performance next month), a Bach program offering a clutch of “authentic” performance plus half a program of the great, bloated orchestrations (one by Mahler, two by Stokowski), a keen reminiscence of what used to pass for Bach in times past. For those who proclaim that sheer exquisiteness has no place in the vastness of Cahuenga Pass, there was Dawn Upshaw’s radiant singing of Ravel’s “Shéhérazade” that seemed to encapsulate the very essence of the evening air.
One further entry during Salonen’s stint did, indeed, stretch the “something for everyone” Bowl philosophy: a multimedia program devised with the connivance of Los Angeles’ resident madcap Peter Sellars. The list was scary enough: Stravinsky (the abrasive little cantata “King of the Stars”), Scriabin’s “Prometheus,” Ligeti’s enchanting little tick-tock piece “Clocks and Clouds,” and Edgard Varèse’s orchestra-plus-electronics “Déserts.” As visuals for the Scriabin (which was originally designed to go with color projections) Sellars had made the weird choice of Edward Curtis’ 1914 black-and-white documentary of Vancouver Indian rituals; for the Varèse, the local video artist Bill Viola had created a far more appropriate counterpart which actually earned cheers at the end. But the Ligeti work, 14 minutes of spun gossamer performed with no visual meddling,  really got the crowd’s collective back up. There were boos, then cheers, then both at once; it might have been Paris on the “Rite of Spring” premiere. Cynics who tend to dismiss the Bowl’s offerings as no more than music to picnic by should have been there that night as this cherishable piece of real estate turned into a living, fire-breathing, roofless concert hall.

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