Joshua Bell's crossovers go nowhere in L.A. Phil's Bowl opener

The Hollywood Bowl is looking and sounding good. Last year it was spiffed up with smart new lawn furniture, compellingly (and controversially) incandescent new high-definition video screens and an exceptional sound system upgrade. This year there are new benches of unweathered, invitingly fresh wood.

The high-priced boxes may be getting a little ratty and overly attractive to insects (more on that a little later), but the county, which owns and operates the Bowl, has put the people first with its fine benches. New boxes can wait for next year's budget.


There was also something else new at the Bowl Tuesday night when the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened its summer concert season. This is traditionally a festive, grand and potentially substantive occasion. Last year Michael Tilson Thomas conducted Mahler's spiritually effusive, massive Second Symphony. The previous summer, Leonard Slatkin introduced Beethoven's spiritually effusive, massive Ninth Symphony with intriguing short new works by women composers.

This year actress Glenn Close sang "Lay Your Head Down," a saccharine lullaby from the movie "Albert Nobbs," while violinist Joshua Bell spooned on additional honey. Las Vegas pop star Frankie Moreno crooned his way through "Eleanor Rigby" at the piano, with Bell adding frivolous virtuosic fiddle ornaments. Sight and sound were, indeed, good. Screens (their luminosity and chroma settings no longer offensive) and loudspeakers let no sugary melodic morsel go to waste.

The L.A. Phil is hardly alone among great U.S. orchestras starting this summer with yesteryear's crossover. Saturday night, the Boston Symphony began its Tanglewood season with Renée Fleming singing selections from "South Pacific." At Ravinia Tuesday night, the Chicago Symphony hosted James Galway playing a flute concerto by "Riverdance" composer Bill Whelan.

The Bowl program was mainly crafted by Bell. This was his 18th appearance in the amphitheater since 1986. It was, he told the audience, time for something a little different. Moreover, the 46-year old star American violinist has already been well exposed in town. In the last few months, he has soloed with the L.A. Phil, given a recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall and offered touring programs with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the London chamber orchestra of which he is music director.

So Bell asked some friends to join him and the L.A. Phil, which was conducted by Bramwell Tovey. His other friends were violinist Philippe Quint and Time for Three, a feisty crossover trio of two violins and bass.

Bell and Tovey came up with a couple of themes. The program opened and closed with Tovey conducting early Stravinsky — the short "Fireworks" and the second of the composer's "Firebird" Suites. It was that 1919 suite that Stravinsky conducted at his Hollywood Bowl debut in 1940, shortly after moving to the West Hollywood hills above Sunset Boulevard.

The other purely orchestral piece was a suite from Franz Waxman's Oscar-winning score to the classic 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard." That's an interesting tie-in, because in 1947, Waxman started a Los Angeles Music Festival, which was also given on Sunset Boulevard (at UCLA) and in which Stravinsky was regularly favored.

That, though, wasn't what Bell meant to tie in. Instead, the violinist joined Close for "With One Look," from Andrew Lloyd Webber's sentimental musical based on the film. And that's where the insect came in.

After leading Waxman's powerfully noir-ish score, Tovey turned to the audience and said he was a little discombobulated. A mysterious large insect had just flown (from the boxes?) onto his score, and it died just as the piece came to an end.

The conductor, whose dry wit never quite reveals what he is really thinking, said he didn't know whether he should take a moment to grieve, and ceremoniously put his handkerchief over the bug. The cameras, missing a great opportunity, did not go for a close-up on the corpse.

The symbolism was all too clear. The performance was strong, but given the programming of Waxman's admirable and forgotten festival, the composer's Sunset Boulevard seemed long gone.

Bell's one serious number was Ravel's Tzigane, which he played with his customary big tone, enviable technique and straightforward phrasing that overlooked Ravelian mystique. His other solo with orchestra was a soupy number from Nigel Hess' score to the 2004 movie "Ladies in Lavender."

Bell and Quint tossed off the lightweight Spanish dances in Sarasate's "Narvarra." Time for Three did, however, cook, as they joined Bell in "Death by Triple Fiddle" by Edgar Meyer. The trio, it turns out, is far more impressive than its heavily promoted and trite new crossover recording suggests.

But this was an evening that could not be saved. Even the "Firebird," an L.A. Phil favorite, sounded tossed off. Hi-def videos highlight stars but are dangerous at concerts like this, conveying too closely the expressions on the performers' faces. There were few pleased looks in the orchestra.

But those new benches sure are nice. And it was easy to tell, because more than half of them were empty. The attendance was a paltry 7,720, which could well be a record low for an L.A. Phil Bowl opening night. Apparently Mahler and Beethoven have more friends in Hollywood. And the market for crossover leftovers is dwindling.