By late August, most of my crack-pot enthusiasm about the Hollywood Bowl and its contents has worn pretty thin. On Tuesday of last week, for example, I took it as a reprieve that the day of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony dawned chill and rainy; could the Powers That Be have read my mind on the subject, lavished their watery benefice upon my unwatered rosebush and granted my overwatered ears a night‘s surcease? But no; despite my impassioned rain dances and the pleading from my parched Rosa mutabilis, the clouds were gone by teatime, duty sounded its usual summons, and I found myself by day’s end making the customary common cause with 5,200 or so of the faithful.
Here, however, my sad tale takes a curious twist, because the music makers of the Los Angeles Philharmonic delivered one helluva Fourth to those aforementioned burdened ears of mine that night, a performance — under the knowing baton of visiting conductor Leonid Grin — that turned Tchaikovsky‘s spavined warhorse into a flashing, swift steed, dazzling in color and power. It was the kind of restorative (of the music and its hearers) that, without anything changed or distorted in this well-worn score, caused familiar moments to resound like first-time discoveries, turned simpering tunesmanship into outpourings from the heart, and whipped up a fine brass-tinted froth at the end that made my few remaining hair roots positively tingle. The first-desk wind players — oboist David Weiss, clarinetist Michele Zukovsky and bassoonist David Breidenthal — translated their many solos into something close to poetry. And while it sounds like adolescent gush, one of the hoariest cliches in the critic’s phrase book, I had the feeling that I was hearing the Tchaikovsky Fourth, if not for the first time, at least for the first time in a new way. (I have to note that one of the lesser scribes from the Times in attendance that night was of a different mind — if mind isn‘t too strong a word — but that’s his problem.)
Leonid Grin has been here before: last year as a replacement at an indoor Philharmonic concert, where he took on and mastered a tough assignment — the Shostakovich 15th, which he was learning at first sight — and in the early 1980s as one of the conducting fellows in the much-mourned Philharmonic Institute. He currently heads the San Jose Symphony, where, I am told, he is doing just fine. My words last year for his Shostakovich performance — solid, properly proportioned, beautifully balanced — are appropriate once again. His program this time also included Shostakovich: the first of the two violin concertos, with the orchestra‘s concertmaster, Martin Chalifour, as the reserved but eloquent soloist; and the delightfully trashy Festival Overture, music designed to gladden Stalin’s heart, but which worked pretty well on mine as well. (I hope, by the way, that you caught the Sunday New York Times of August 20, with Irina Shostakovich‘s earnest and passionate refutation of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, his highly suspect concocted ”memoir“ of her tormented husband‘s struggles against the Stalinist oppression that continued long after Stalin’s death.)
The much-loved Kurt Sanderling, who guest-led the Philharmonic many times during the 1980s, had been close to Shostakovich, and delivered a performance here of the Fifth Symphony that remains, on a deviously obtained tape, my favorite way of hearing this well-worn score. Sanderling‘s son Stefan, another alumnus of the Philharmonic Institute and a fast-rising figure on the European orchestral landscape, had taken on the preceding week’s Bowl concerts, and I can‘t entirely blame him for my feeling that neither concert challenged the best he could offer.
If ever a piece has outlived its usefulness, Gustav Holst’s The Planets is surely that piece. In simpler, happier times, when there were still new planets to be found within our solar system, and H.G. Wells was inventing his genteel brand of sci-fi fantasy, a pretty orchestral celebration of the spirit of interplanetary exploration might have scored points, especially with Holst‘s wordless chorus mysticus to intone celestial evocations at the end. Along came Star Wars, and smart promoters — our own Zubi among them — invented clever light-show productions to go along with Holst’s score, indoors and out, that could take people‘s minds off the dreariness of the music. At the Bowl, however, without any such visual props to buttress the mystical otherworldly warblings, The Planets of Gustav Holst added up to an hour dull beyond redemption. Before, on this first of Sanderling’s two concerts, had come Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, a work with far more to say (in half the time) and with the Philharmonic’s recently retired principal cellist Ron Leonard to say it simply, elegantly and beautifully.
Two nights later there was neither elegance nor beauty, in a program that called out for those qualities above all: waltzes and waltz songs by several composers named Strauss, related or not, plus one named Lehar, deflated by the orchestra and flung forth by the evening‘s soloist with all the lightness of a collapsed souffle. A suite of orchestral bits from nonrelated Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier began it, an overextended, leaden affair in which most of the opera‘s best waltz tunes (e.g., the ”Breakfast Waltz“ of Act 1 and the ”Nein, nein . . .“ waltzes of Act 3) had been omitted in favor of a few unsung orchestral versions of vocal numbers.
Then came the evening’s soloist, the Korean soprano Sumi Jo, whose presence had brought out a huge compatriot crowd but who serenaded those admirers with singing cold, inflexible and just plain unloving — this in such lovable material as the ”Vilja-Song“ from The Merry Widow and the ”Laughing Song“ from Die Fledermaus. At the L.A. Opera, I admired Sumi Jo for her Queen of the Night but deplored her lack of identity as Lucy of Lammermoor. This time neither she, nor Sanderling‘s frequent resorting to shifts of tempo in a vain attempt to simulate the famous Viennese lilt, came within miles of the high-class schmaltz the program had promised on paper. By intermission’s end, for the first time in many seasons, I too was no longer within miles — of the Bowl, that is.