Music review: Tchaikovsky spectacular once more at the Hollywood Bowl


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In these pages 25 summers ago, Daniel Cariaga summarized the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 17th annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular at the Hollywood Bowl as offering little beyond the tried and true. A young French soloist (Brigitte Engerer) was ‘overdressed in a glitzy, multicolored (mostly fuchsia and pink) gown resembling nothing so much as the flag of Copacabana.’ ‘Capriccio Italien’ was on the bill. A near capacity crowd of over 17,000 ‘responded vociferously -- and by rolling wine bottles down the concrete steps.’ The USC Trojan marching band and fireworks helped make the ‘1812’ Overture ‘a noisy and smoky finale.’

Surprisingly little has changed. At this year’s Tchaikovsky Spectacular Friday night, the audience was a third smaller, but vociferous. ‘Capriccio Italien’ was again on the bill. Trojans ‘slipped on,’ as conductor Bramwell Tovey put it, for the ‘1812.’ Earlier in the evening, the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was Baiba Skride, a young Latvian. Compared to some of her stylishly casual CD cover photos, she also appeared a little overdressed if not exactly flag-wrapped.


Even so, the Tchaikovsky formula remains strong. In the four decades since the first Tchaikovsky Spectacular, the 19th century Russian Romantic’s life and reputation have come out of the closet and he has gained substantial academic respect. The presentation, though, could use a bit of a makeover. The fireworks scenes of old Russia looked old. And enough already with ‘Capriccio Italien,’ in which a melancholic Muscovite in Rome kicks up condescending heels.

Tovey, the L.A. Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor at the Bowl, proved not only an effective and likable Tchaikovskian, he was also a garrulous host and deadpan comic. Moreover, the event served, as it has been many times in the past, as an opportunity to introduce an important artist to our parts.

Skride was not quite what I had expected from her CDs. A few years ago Sony Classical began promoting her as the next sexy young violinist. On them, she can sound a winningly lithesome player with a finely spun silken tone. Her capricious performance of Janácek’s Violin Concerto, ‘The Wandering of a Little Soul,’ recorded six years ago when she was in her early 20s, is downright flirtatious.

Maybe Skride took one look at an audience of nearly 11,000 on her Bowl debut and decided something brawnier than normal would be needed. At any rate, she displayed a grand, full tone from her Stradivarius, and she dug into Tchaikovsky’s concerto in the manner more reminiscent of the solid, stolid Soviet school.

Not that the audience seemed to mind. Spontaneous applause broke out mid-cadenza, and when a standing ovation after the first movement seemed like is wasn’t going to end any time soon, Tovey turned around and asked if perhaps we wouldn’t like to hear the rest of the piece.

The environment, along with little rehearsal time (made further challenging, Tovey told the crowd, by a helicopter that buzzed the morning session), may have contributed to her Tchaikovsky seeming short on fresh interpretive ideas. Unless her recordings lie, she can be a more interesting player. Still, her mastery and power were impressive. An encore would have been interesting, and maybe possible had she taken a cut or two in the last movement.

Tovey began the program with a fine, rousing rarity, ‘Festival Coronation’ March, written for the coronation of Tsar Alexander III. His spoken introduction to the Waltz from ‘Swan Lake’ was a riot. And he did a drill sergeant’s duty proud in an eagerly elated ‘1812.’

With some players on vacation, the L.A. Philharmonic was bolstered by substitutes, and a few players lower in the ranks stepped up to the first chairs. The playing was consistently bright and entertaining. But Tovey kept making rather mean cracks about the trombones. ‘It’s difficult to ignore the trombones,’ he said at one point. ‘But it’s worth the effort.’

The reason became clear when the ill-tuned Trojans trudged out (rather than slipped on), generating the evening’s most vociferous cheers (and requisite UCLA booing). The fireworks may have been less artful than in the past but they were plenty splashy -- and loud. So much for the Trojans.
Ultimately, the merriment of the ‘1812’ and fireworks in this setting silence critics just as effectively as they drown out offending trombones. I left happy.

-- Mark Swed