Music review: Tovey conducts rare ‘The Warriors’ at the Hollywood Bowl


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Tuesday was meant as a night of Englishness. Bramwell Tovey -- the principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and an affably avuncular Brit ever-ready with a quip for the audience -- was in excellent form.

Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1, broadly played, evoked the land of hope and glory (as well as graduation). Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” for violin and orchestra, a perfect pastoral, featured concertmaster Martin Chalifour. His tone sweet and pure, he supplied the sound of a bird in delicate, mysterious, hypnotic flight.


More Elgar -- this time the treacly “La Capricieuse,” “Chanson de Nuit” and Mazurka -- in new bread-pudding arrangements by Tovey for violin and orchestra (commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic) were a sugar-rush of small musical sweets.

After intermission, Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera, “Peter Grimes,” had grit, grandeur and fervor, if played a little on the rough side.

There is no more news in these British favorites than there is at a Last Night of the Proms (which, incidentally, will be broadcast, for the first time, live to cinemas Saturday afternoon). But the program concluded with the first Bowl performance of Percy Grainger’s “The Warriors” since the composer conducted his wacky 19-minute imaginary ballet in the Bowl on his wedding night 81 summers ago. And that was something else entirely. But then, Grainger was, as the British like to say, a nutter.

The night of Aug. 9, 1928, is a Bowl legend. Grainger filled the amphitheater, which in those days seated more than 20,000. He brought along his fiancée, a Swedish poet who didn’t know the Bowl from a dale and thought she was about to be married in an intimate setting. After conducting “The Warriors,” Grainger held the wedding ceremony -- to the bride’s amazement -- before the equally unsuspecting audience (also to her amazement that night, she learned of her new husband’s enthusiasm for flagellation and who knows what else). Along with inventing a “free-music machine,” which allowed him to write chance music long before John Cage, Grainger also happened to be the first to come up with the athletic bra back in 1908.

Perhaps it was Grainger’s peculiarities that have allowed him to be claimed by the British. Born in 1882 in Australia, he studied in Germany and only lived in London for 13 years (much of that time spent traveling to Scandinavia, which he felt was inhabited by a superior race). In 1914, shortly after beginning work on “The Warriors,” he moved to the U.S., became a citizen, taught in Chicago and settled in White Plains, N.Y., where he remained until his death in 1961.

“The Warriors” was Grainger’s largest score, both in length and size of forces. In a program note, Grainger, a lifelong pacifist, wrote vividly of “old Greek heroes,” “flaxen-haired Vikings,” “lithe bright Amazons,” “Red Indians,” “Fijians, terrible with sharks’ teeth ornaments” and “graceful cannibal Polynesians of both sexes.”


The score combines orgiastic war dances, amorous interludes and general merry-making in a loosely rambling Graingeresque form, and it requires an enormous percussion section to do so, along with a large off-stage brass contingent. And at least three pianos are needed. They were placed in front of the orchestra Tuesday. Once in Chicago, Grainger led a performance that included 19 pianos and 30 pianists.

Completed in 1916, “The Warriors” has passages as rhythmically bold as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which premiered three years earlier. The pianists hit the strings of their instruments with mallets, matching Henry Cowell experiments at the time up in Northern California. There are delicate, dreamy, mystical passages in debt to both Delius and Debussy.

Best of all, much goes on at the same time, which recalls Charles Ives. More than one conductor is needed (the second on Tuesday was Case Scaglione). But for all that, “The Warriors” is pure Grainger. Upbeat folk-like tunes jostle with bits of exquisite lyricism all for the purpose of new-fangled weirdness.

“The Warriors” divides devout Graingerites. Some find it an embarrassment. Others consider it his greatest masterpiece. It has a number of recordings but live performances are exceedingly rare.

This was my first (and not for want of trying). After this rambunctiously, infectiously noisy Bowl outing, I come down on the masterpiece side and am mystified that Americans have not claimed it for our own. If we need to thank a British conductor for reminding us of this, then thank you, Bramwell Tovey.

-- Mark Swed