Having served as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl a decade ago, Leonard Slatkin knows a little something about the difficulty of trying to move a 2,000-pound gorilla. He had hoped to enliven the L.A. Phil's summer programming with new and unusual music.
He did manage to nudge the L.A. Phil in a venturesome repertory direction, although he never initiated his plan for novel star-spangled arrangements by contemporary composers of the national anthem, which is traditionally played before every orchestra concert.
Limited rehearsals and the need to draw large crowds remained — and remain — necessary economic priorities.
Tuesday night, three weeks before his 70th birthday in L.A., Slatkin returned to a venue where he ushered as a teenager. And this time, whether by his choice or by marketing necessity, Slatkin stuck with tradition, beginning with a Russian program highlighted by Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto (with Gil Shaham) and Rimsky-Korsakov's evergreen "Scheherazade," as will be his program Thursday night (when he is joined by Yo-Yo Ma in Elgar's Cello Concerto). For the weekend, Slatkin leads the popular annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular. That means, along with the two Tchaikovsky nights, three-quarters of this native Angeleno's Bowl time this week will be Russian.
Although currently music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon in France, Slatkin continues as music director of the Detroit Symphony and also continues to be an all-American who struggles between his allegiances to the Cardinals in St. Louis (where he was once music director) and the Detroit Tigers. His most recent recording of populist Copland scores with Detroit captures the American spirit bracingly.
His Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov and in the opening overture, Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmila," were bracing too. Slatkin does have a Lithuanian heritage, but he is not one to dwell on the darker side of Russian music. He conducts in broad, brash swathes of primary colors. He is practical on the podium and can look slightly offhand at times. But he has the character of an old master with nothing to prove and well experienced in making things work.
Both Slatkin's practical approach and the Bowl's audio-visual necessities were challenges to Shaham. Prokofiev's concerto, written in 1935, around the time of the composer's repatriation with his Stalinist homeland, has much the same character as his ballet "Romeo and Juliet." The concerto sings dark-eyed, soulful melodies, and, despite playful respites, the score is a dance of impending tragedy.
Shaham is a mercurial violinist with a silvery, slippery tone beautifully employed in the opening solo. He likes to roam the stage and engage up close with conductor and orchestra members in the midst of a performance. His facial expressions are of wonderment, joy and sadness.
He can do little of that at the Bowl, however. The stationary microphones require a stationary soloist. The camera close-ups on the video screens might make grimaces and grins communicative up to a point but go too far, and you risk suggesting distracting grotesquerie.
This time Shaham went just the right degree with his slithering and sweet phrasing, his smiles and frowns. He appeared fanciful but not eccentric. He stood where he was supposed to but still managed to engage with the orchestra. Slatkin served as facilitator.
The Glinka opening was not polished, but "Scheherazade" proved a Rimsky-Korsakov spectacular. The L.A. Phil had played it last December in Walt Disney Concert Hall in the arrestingly nuanced last appearance with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who died two months ago. That revelatory performance was fine-tuned and had the huge advantage of Disney Hall's acoustics.
Slatkin's resources were slimmer, but the Bowl's robust amplification provided sonic enhancement, and the conductor treated Rimsky's magnificent musical evocation of stories from "A Thousand and One Nights" with solid storytelling gusto. The orchestra had a satisfyingly bass-heavy sound. Wind solos were illuminating. And first associate concertmaster Nathan Cole's elegant, understated violin solos were as well suited for a summer's night as they were for smoothing together a rambling score's rough spots.