It was 32 years ago this week that Leonard Bernstein brought opening week at the Hollywood Bowl into the realm of legend, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in his own music plus that of Barber, Schumann and Copland — and for good measure, playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Those who were there will never forget it, and those who missed it got a taste of the experience through recordings that Deutsche Grammophon made in San Francisco a few days later.
For the record: A review in the July 12 Calendar section of Bramwell Tovey leading the L.A. Philharmonic in a program of Gershwin and Bernstein at the Hollywood Bowl included a reference to composer William Schuman in which his last name was misspelled as Schumann.
Yet it's possible that a time traveler from 1982 might have felt right at home in the Bowl on Thursday night, snazzy visual updates and all. It was opening week, and Bernstein and Gershwin were still on the program. The man on the podium was another charming, gifted polymath, Bramwell Tovey — conductor, composer, pianist, educator and entertainer — who happened to receive his big break conducting in Bernstein's presence at London's Barbican Centre in 1986.
Attendance at the Bowl was massive, as it usually is for Gershwin nights: 11,857.
Bernstein on Broadway came first, as Tovey opened with the obvious curtain-raiser, the "Candide" Overture — not too fast, with plenty of exposed detail — and after the first of several viola jokes, the Three Dance Episodes from "On the Town."
Tovey's feeling for the jazzy, bluesy, slangy, 1940s Bernstein style is genuine, and he also caught the humor in the Times Square dance. There was an unbilled fourth "dance" as a bonus. Singer Alysha Umphress and dancer Jay Armstrong Johnson from the forthcoming Broadway revival of "On the Town" mugged their way through "I Can Cook, Too" with gushers of sass.
So far, so good. Then Gershwin took over the evening, and things started to get erratic.
Acting upon a suggestion by Bernstein, Tovey also conducted "Rhapsody in Blue" from the piano. It turns out that Tovey was the first to do so at the Bowl since Bernstein did it 32 years ago.
Tovey played in a freewheeling, jazz-inflected, tempo-stretching manner that was not far removed from memories of Bernstein's performance (complete with wrong notes). Yet Tovey lurched from episode to episode, making the "Rhapsody" seem even more fragmented than it already is, and the Philharmonic sounded as if it was on its own a good deal of the time.
Tovey then took on three more roles in a quartet of Gershwin songs — as a capable, sometimes mischievous jazz pianist, an arranger of suave orchestral backings, and when Dee Dee Bridgewater got lost in the verse of "They Can't Take That Away From Me," Tovey sang the remaining words himself. "The Man I Love" seemed pitched way too high for Bridgewater, but she eventually found her customary range and groove in "A Foggy Day" and "Fascinating Rhythm."
Back on the podium, Tovey polished off "An American in Paris" to close, getting a slippery blues effect from the saxes and proving a formidable multitasker at the Bowl in his own right.