Music review: Bramwell Tovey, Stephen Hough and the L.A. Phil at Hollywood Bowl
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An old friend and a new one turned up Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl. The old friend wasn’t the conductor, the soloist or any member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was composer Bedrich Smetana, a pied piper who has drawn countless youngsters into the joys of classical music. The new friend was pianist Stephen Hough, who will lead another generation of listeners into similar delirium.
Smetana enticed all over again as Bramwell Tovey led the Overture, Polka, Furiant and Dance of the Comedians from the opera “The Bartered Bride,” and the once perennial tone poem “The Moldau.”
Smetana’s music is robust, healthy, accessible and joyful. Those were the qualities that Tovey emphasized, as he began his third season under the mantle of principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, a precise, if over-qualified title.
Tovey led the madcap Overture with never-flagging zip, the strings biting into the short, crisp, ever-expanding motifs, building into an electric, layered fugue, the whole pulsing with energy and life.
His account of the three dances that followed tended toward too much rhythmic regularity at the expense of variety of phrasing and contrast, although principal timpanist Joseph Pereira had some tasteful show-off moments in the Comedians’ dance.
But Tovey recaptured the high ground with a sensitive reading of “The Moldau,” prefacing the work with droll and witty comments from the stage, including word-play on “bouncing Czechs” and “bouncing checks,” then coaxing seductive playing from the superb woodwinds.
After intermission, Hough joined Tovey for an exceptionally poetic and powerful account of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. (Brahms’ Second is on tap Thursday at the Bowl with Tovey and soloist Emanuel Ax.)
Hough didn’t rely on razzle-dazzle to beguile an audience. Instead, he played with quiet, probing lyricism, nevertheless turning up the power whenever it was needed. He proved incapable of routine — yet never indulged in finicky or misjudged statements. He made this familiar music sound newly written. Welcome him back anytime.
In the slow movement, bassoonists Whitney Crockett and Shawn Mouser helped establish the radiant, reflective mood, and elsewhere principal horn Eric Overholt played with unfailing lyric nobility.
Kudos also to the masters of the Bowl’s amplification system and its cameras. The sound was clear and transparent throughout, while the camera images focused deftly on the conductor, instrumentalists and the soloist, particularly on Hough’s fleet, expressive hands.
– Chris Pasles
Bramwell Tovey conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Hollywood Bowl; 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31, Sept. 2, 7 and 9; 8:30 p.m. Aug. 20 and 21; $1 to $156 (323) 850-2000.
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