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Fill-ins Behzod Abduraimov and James Gaffigan shine at Bowl

Pianist Behzod Abduraimov fills in wonderfully at the Hollywood Bowl
Behzod Abduraimov and James Gaffigan's straightforward approach works wonders
Esa-Pekka Salonen drops out of Bowl appearance but will be there Thursday with Yuja Wang

The long-awaited return of Esa-Pekka Salonen to the Hollywood Bowl just got a little longer. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's conductor laureate, who last led his old orchestra outdoors six summers ago just before beginning his final season as L.A. Phil music director, was slated to conduct Tuesday night but dropped out last week to deal with unexpected personal issues. His soloist, pianist Yefim Bronfman, canceled at the same time, needing to undergo a medical procedure.

All was not lost. Salonen is still on for Thursday night, when he appears with pianist Yuja Wang. Tuesday's program of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and selections from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" remained mainly the same. James Gaffigan took a brief break from the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where he is conducting and coaching.

But the lucky break was the last-minute availability of another Uzbek pianist, like Bronfman, from Tashkent able to make his Bowl debut in the Tchaikovsky concerto.

There has been buzz about Behzod Abduraimov, who was born in 1990 and is already getting A-list gigs. He made his solo recording debut on Decca two years ago with an eloquently potent account of Prokofiev's Sixth Piano Sonata that brings to mind Sviatoslav Richter and some colorfully liquid Liszt playing. He now tours with the Boston Symphony and appears with the likes of Valery Gergiev.

Interestingly, Abduraimov is a little reminiscent of his famous countryman. He does not command Bronfman's electrifying percussive power, but the younger pianist has a glitter all his own. He has an easy, agreeably confident and youthful manner at the keyboard and fingers that seem as though they were made to create rainbows.

A Bowl-goer necessarily must make allowances for amplification when hearing a new pianist. Abduraimov's tone may not be as all consuming as the loudspeakers proclaim. But the amphitheater's currently superb sound system doesn't lie. It can't by itself produce those gorgeous colors that filled the Bowl on Tuesday. It can maybe magnify a young pianist's magnificently melting fluidity, but it was Abduraimov who turned on those sonic fountains.

The approach to Tchaikovsky, underscored by Gaffigan, was essentially straightforward, music-trusting. Color came first. Abduraimov decorated the concerto's famed opening theme with the same ornamental allure he brings to Liszt. In lyrical passages, especially in the second movement, the piano playing was sweetly effusive. He can thunder, but he played Tchaikovsky's fast and furious passages not like a challenge but an almost serene joy. He is a pleasure to hear.

Gaffigan, the 35-year-old American conductor who made an impressive L.A. Phil debut two years ago, provided Abduraimov hefty support in the Tchaikovsky and then made eight sections, conducted from memory, from Prokofiev's ballet his own.

Curiously, Romeo and Juliet have been cavorting around town lately. National Ballet of Canada brought choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's trite version of Prokofiev's ballet to the Music Center last week, with genial accompaniment conducted by David Briskin, whose contribution was not considered important enough by the company to include on the cast list. Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles also opened a production of Shakespeare's play over the weekend. Set in the L.A. of the 1920s, around the time the Hollywood Bowl opened and a decade before Prokofiev wrote his ballet, it came far closer to the fusible character of Prokofiev's score.

That too was the spirit of Gaffigan's approach in a 42-minute précis of the evening-long work (he removed four of 11 sections Salonen had programmed and added one of his own).

The main quality here was vigor. Gaffigan brought a vital force to the combatant Montagues and Capulets. Prokofiev dispatches Tybalt with 15 hammered timpani strokes, and Gaffigan, who looks good on the video screens, handled that as if impressively wielding a samurai sword. The love music was demonstrative but blessedly short of gushing (again much closer to Shakespeare Center than the Music Center).

The L.A. Phil sounded strong, not delicate or precise. The amplification here was uneven. Big, brassy effects were a knockout. But solo wind and string playing could be distorted. Another rehearsal for musicians and engineers might have helped.

Still, summertime is never easy for L.A. Phil, and Gaffigan saved the day.

mark.swed@latimes.com

Twitter: @markswed

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