For Bramwell Tovey — conductor, composer, pianist, noted wag — 2018 has been a transitional year. He stepped down from the Vancouver Symphony after what locals regard as a transformational 18 years on its podium. He returned to his native Britain to become principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra while maintaining music director emeritus status in Vancouver.
Yet Tovey’s schedule has preserved one constant: the annual gigs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
Even when his post as the L.A. Phil’s principal guest conductor at the Bowl ended, he never stopped coming — and given his following with ticket buyers and his rapport with the orchestra, he could probably wave the stick here for as long as he wants.
For his first program Tuesday night (a program that repeats Thursday) Tovey nailed together a combination of Carl Orff’s ever-popular, ever-rowdy “Carmina Burana” and the relatively scarce Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. Even for Beethoven, this was a weird piece — a free-form piano solo followed by variations on a catchy tune that brings in the orchestra, then six vocalists and finally a full chorus.
Chorale Fantasy can be heard as a warm-up exercise for the Ninth Symphony’s mighty choral finale, but it has had hardly any influence since. The one oddball exception is Busoni’s gigantic Piano Concerto, which also has a choral finale.
One reason why the Choral Fantasy isn’t performed much is that the six singers and chorus are only in action for about four minutes, so it is usually booked in tandem with a larger symphonic choral work. Another reason is that you also need a first-class piano soloist. The concert Tuesday checked both boxes.
Emanuel Ax once recorded the Choral Fantasy with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic rather tepidly in 1983. But that was then. Now, Ax attacks the opening solo and variations with greater force, character, nuance and rhythmic sharpness, a complete transformation.
The same qualities could be heard in Tovey’s conducting, with a bit of slowing down in the choral stretches that was effective and rousing. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was in top form; the balance of this complex combination of piano, orchestra and singers over the sound system was spot on. A stirring performance it was.
Then Tovey had his way with Orff’s racy, repetitive, obsessive, red-blooded settings of poems by renegade 13th century monks and students, noting that in the #MeToo era the work might be politically incorrect.
There could have been more sensuality from the otherwise excellent soprano Ying Fang, while baritone Norman Garrett made a rich impression. Nicholas Phan has been the go-to tenor in town for “Carmina” several times recently — and so he was here, his tone of desperation as a roasting swan stretched even more desperately this time. The Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang fervently, at rock-concert volume.
Upon hearing Tovey’s frequently slow tempos supported by consistently firm rhythm, and given Tovey’s connection to Leonard Bernstein early in his career, I had one last thought: Had Lenny put aside his apparent disdain for “Carmina,” might he have done it this way in his last years?
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L.A. Phil with Bramwell Tovey and Emanuel Ax
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday