Music review: Bramwell Tovey, Emanuel Ax and the L.A. Phil at Hollywood Bowl


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Bramwell Tovey set himself quite a task this week at the Hollywood Bowl – trying to follow the flashy, perfectly-pitched-to the-outdoors programming of ‘Gustavo Dudamel Week’ with not one, but both of Brahms’ heavyweight piano concertos. But the waggish Tovey lightened the load somewhat with two things: a pair of Czechs as counterweights, and his own ability to talk mischievously and informatively about them.

Thursday night, it was Dvorák’s turn as the leadoff hitter, and rather than stick with the usual handful of overplayed pieces, Tovey tried something different.


Dvorák wrote five symphonic poems toward the end of his life – none of which have caught on to any great extent in this country, but that’s not Dvorák’s fault; they’re good pieces that ought to be heard. Tovey offered the shortest one, “The Noonday Witch,” which traces a rather grisly Karel Erben folk tale with some of Dvorák’s most genial ideas, as well as some atypically (for him) creepy and ominous passages. Tovey displayed a solid grip on the piece’s abrupt mood changes and suspense; the orchestra sounded audibly less certain.

Another Dvorák cycle that you don’t hear often in concert are all of the marvelous Slavonic Dances. There are 16 of them, but only a handful get much live exposure, usually as encores. Tovey selected three of the best-known ones, Nos. 1, 2 and 8 from Op. 46, getting a boisterous, rumbling response from the Philharmonic with the sound system cranked up as it was for Dudamel last week.

Emanuel Ax, the pianist entrusted with the huge Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, has been in town a lot this year, having played in five different programs in a residency this past winter and spring – and he will be back again downtown with the Philharmonic Oct. 8-10 with another German landmark, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. So it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that Ax hadn’t played in the Bowl since 2002.

Upon the re-release of his recordings of the two Brahms concertos on Sony in 2007, Ax wrote disarmingly that the Brahms piano concertos “are still terrifyingly difficult for me” – and he doesn’t hide the physical effort, as displayed for all on the video screens.

Nevertheless, Ax still has the big guns for the two mighty opening movements, with the thick potato-soup orchestral texture made even more dense by the Bowl’s notorious echo. Best of all was Ax’s finale, with a nicely detached, rhythmically resilient touch and a real feeling for give-and-take between pianist and conductor. Also, Peter Stumpf’s superb cello solos in the third movement were projected clearly in the amplified mix.

Other than a slightly quicker opening movement, Ax’s overall interpretation – less portentous than most – hasn’t changed much since his 1997 taping with Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony. But he did display a more rugged, outgoing involvement with Tovey and the Phil, which was a good idea for the expansive outdoors.

-- Richard S. Ginell


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