Music review: Nikolaj Znaider dazzles at the Hollywood Bowl

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Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was written in 1878. It entered the Los Angeles Philharmonic repertory in 1921, during the orchestra’s second season, and was already a standard when the Hollywood Bowl opened the following year.

Acoustic shell shapes and sizes have changed in the Cahuenga Pass over the years, and so has fashion. Gentlemen no longer wear coats, neckties and fedoras for their Bowl outings. Ladies, at some point, put their mink stoles in storage for good. Smoke a cigarette while you listen in 2009, and you will be escorted out in handcuffs.

But Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is never required to go out of style. It has been played – whether well or dutifully -- year after year, decade after decade in the Bowl. Today’s young violinists fear neither its technical difficulties nor its warhorse hoariness. Last September, a teenager, Eugene Ugorski, was its soloist at the Bowl.

Eleven months later Tchaikovsky’s concerto was already back at the Bowl. Nikolaj Znaider, 34 and Danish, was soloist Thursday night. He is a hot young violinist and was a last-minute replacement for Leonidas Kavakos, a hot young Greek violinist who is recovering from surgery. Leonard Slatkin conducted a piece he must have accompanied countless times. The L.A. Philharmonic can, and has been known to, play the concerto in its sleep.

A critic at this point might hit the insert button and enter his own potboiler ho-hum paragraph. But Znaider is a class act. He is of an Israeli family immigrated to Denmark. His training is Russian. His violin is a Guarneri “del Gesú.” The combination of Copenhagen cosmopolitanism, Israeli chutzpah, Russian ardor and gorgeous-toned Italian instrument is thrilling. He has even bothered to find a well-cut white jacket that doesn’t make him, like the orchestra and most of its guests, look like waiters (one Hollywood Bowl tradition too long indulged).

Znaider brought to Tchaikovsky speed. He kept his vibrato tight and unsentimental. He skipped lightly but not superficially, an art lost on many violinists tempted to dig in well-tread ground. He has learned from Heifetz to make the impossible sound effortless.

Even so, Znaider is not easily pigeonholed. He reacts to circumstances. A new recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev, is slow and thoughtful. Slatkin, old Bowl hand that he is, probably offered some encouragement for Thursday’s summertime sizzle.


In the first and last movements, Slatkin went for rhythmic punch and sharp accents. Phrase answered phrase logically and left little room for a soloist’s fussiness. Znaider skated over the orchestra, his reflexes a delight. Nothing Slatkin could throw at him fazed him. The central Canzonetta was weightless and a wonder.

Remarkably, the performance sounded decently rehearsed, which it hardly could have been, given the usual summer schedule and an otherwise demanding program that began with the Los Angeles premiere of Joan Tower’s “Made in America” and ended with Sibelius’ Second Symphony.

Tower’s 11-minute curtain raiser, commissioned in 2004 by the Ford Foundation to be played by mid-level orchestras in all 50 states, is a poor piece, which is the first time I have written that about a work of Tower. She circles “America the Beautiful” with less verve or originality than Ives did a century ago. Her orchestra is honeyed and expert, but she dumbs it down with the conventions of movie music of yore and, yes, Sibelius. A politician might appropriate this score as patriotic background music. A recording with the Nashville Symphony under Slatkin won three Grammys this year.

Slatkin’s Sibelius Second after intermission was bold. Again, old Bowl hand that he is, he was fast, and he was grand. The performance went over well with the crowd. After 17 years under a Finnish music director, the orchestra knows Sibelius’ most popular symphony nearly as thoroughly as it does its Tchaikovsky.

But Esa-Pekka Salonen’s multifaceted Sibelius is too much still in the players’ blood. For that reason, Slatkin’s reading felt effortful and bittersweet, and I was glad when it was over. But an evening that brought an inspired Tchaikovsky concerto was much more than we can normally count on in the August doldrums.

-- Mark Swed