Hollywood Bowl conductors hope to win friends and influence people

Special to The Times

Classical audiences used to groan when someone approached the front of the stage to address them at the beginning of a concert. It usually meant the star attraction had canceled. But that has changed. These days in L.A., such an appearance might mean that Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. President Deborah Borda is about to introduce a new orchestra member, or that Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen is going to wittily prepare listeners for, say, the loudest orchestral work in the repertoire.

Especially for conductors in the Cahuenga Pass, being an engaging speaker has become an integral part of the job. Over 16 years, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra's founding director, John Mauceri, created a tradition of speaking to Bowl audiences. And it's a custom the two new guys in town, Bramwell Tovey and Thomas Wilkins, plan to carry on.

Webern composition: An article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about conductors Bramwell Tovey and Thomas Wilkins misspelled composer Anton Webern's "Im Sommerwind" as "Im Sommerwin." —

This summer, Tovey, the English-born, Grammy- winning music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, has succeeded Leonard Slatkin as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. And Wilkins, music director of the Omaha Symphony, has become principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra -- the ensemble's first designated leader since Mauceri stepped down in 2006.

The Bowl, which seats 18,000 people, presents special challenges to any would-be master of ceremonies. "In Walt Disney Concert Hall, it's like speaking in your living room," says Borda. "The Bowl is trickier. It's like speaking into an enormous vacuum. But Bramwell and Tom got the Bowl."

Clearly, the music always has to come first. Still, as Borda says, "there's a component in the Bowl that one can't underestimate -- the ability to communicate with the audience verbally. It's an enormous opportunity for the Philharmonic to open doors for people who may be less deeply versed in classical music."

Tovey, speaking by phone recently from Vancouver, agreed that the Bowl offers a unique opportunity. "But it's also an enormous amount of fun. It's just an amazing feeling being able to reach so many people. When you say something funny at the Bowl, you hear the laughter coming back at you like a wave on a beach. You have to make sure your timing's OK, so that you give people the space to laugh before they have to listen again."

This is Tovey's first week in his new role, and it's a full one, beginning Tuesday night with a program including a work he composed, "Urban Runway," along with Strauss' "Don Juan" and Orff's "Carmina Burana." On Thursday, he'll conduct Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 (the "Organ") and Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," and next Sunday, Bizet's "Carmen," with Denyce Graves in the title role.

Wilkins' two-year appointment began June 20, when he opened the Bowl season with a Hall of Fame induction gala. He will return Friday and Saturday for a concert featuring singer Chris Isaak and romantic music from classic Hollywood films.

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