Hollywood Bowl Opener

There are two ways of regarding the Hollywood Bowl, that vast unroofed monument to the senses that looms large above the unreality of its hometown and beguiles visitors over a 14-week stretch each summer – and which finally got down to business in its 79th season earlier this week with the last of two weeks’ worth of  “opening nights.” One way is to deplore the fact that a mere 7,500 of the 17,900 seats get filled on a classical-music night — the weekend pops-plus-fireworks events draw better – leaving enough empty space in the stands to stage road races. The other is to marvel that, in a city which still chafes under its long-outmoded title of “cultural desert,” serious music-making at the Bowl can still attract the capacity of three or more indoor concert halls.
This final “opening night” – following upon the “opening gala,” the “opening family night” and “opening jazz” – marked the return of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to its summertime home-not-too-far-away-from-home. Until then, the venue’s other band, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra – a tidy assemblage with a not-quite-permanent membership drawn from the area’s lavish pool of studio freelancers – had held sway, in events ranging from a backup for country singers Garth Brooks and Glen Campbell to a complete if unstaged “Madama Butterfly” – splendidly led by HBO’s permanent conductor, John Mauceri.
Tuesday’s opening Philharmonic concert – let’s see how to put it mildly – fell somewhat short of the standards often if not always attained in previous seasons. Local boy Leonard Slatkin – whose parents were the founders of the legendary Hollywood String Quartet – conducted a ragtag program: short orchestral works and vocal selections ranging from Mozart to Sondheim. Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey were the soloists, eminent artists in their day but, on this occasion, providing the sad spectacle of former eminences struggling against the ravages of time.
The evening had begun promisingly: von Stade curling her honeyed tones around a couple of Offenbach arias (from “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein”) that have been her personal domain since her cherishable LP. The spell didn’t last, however. Ramey’s delivery of the “Catalogue Aria” from “Don Giovanni” was a routine affair, and the singers’ collaboration on “La, ci darem la mano” seemed like nothing more than a couple of middle-aged performers struggling, with little interest, against an orchestra headed in its own direction.
Matters hardly improved. Slatkin, who has rung up a good reputation for service to American music, seemingly acquiesced as von Stade and Ramey turned a brace of Copland’s “Old American Songs” into a display of the cutes. Actually, Slatkin’s most successful contribution to an otherwise below-par evening was the five-minute orchestral piece called “Walking the Dog,” fashioned from George Gershwin’s film score for the Astaire-Rogers “Shall We Dance.” Nothing else, alas, danced.