Music review: Leonard Slatkin and Sarah Chang return to the Hollywood Bowl for Shostakovich

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After having spent a weekend devoted to Tchaikovsky with its current principal guest conductor for the Hollywood Bowl, Bramwell Tovey, the Los Angeles Philharmonic went from an eagerly cheerless and iconic 19th century Russian composer to a 20th century one on Tuesday. This time the conductor was Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra’s first and previous principal guest at the Bowl, and the program was all Shostakovich.

The Tchaikovsky Spectacular, which began with a festive coronation march for Czar Alexander III, was designed for fun and fireworks. Slatkin’s Shostakovich was serious -- a violin concerto and symphony by a composer squirming under Stalin’s thumb. Yet Tuesday’s crowd was a gratifyingly sizable 8,797, only 20% fewer than TGIF pleasure-seekers a few days earlier.


Slatkin has, himself, had a tumultuous year. He suffered, in Holland, a heart attack and, in New York, a Met attack. He recovered from both, although his unhappy Metropolitan Opera engagement, where he was accused of being unprepared to conduct Verdi’s ‘La Traviata,’ still seems to follow him.

Things clearly went wrong at the Met. But anyone who could offer as compellingly strong a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and gracefully support as compellingly strong a soloist as Sarah Chang in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 -- all with minimal rehearsal time Tuesday -- knows what he is doing.

It hardly hurt to have a couple of old Bowl hands on hand. As a kid, Slatkin ushered at the Bowl (and his father, Felix Slatkin, conducted there). In 2004, Chang, at 23, was the youngest artist ever to receive the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame Award.

Slatkin obviously knows the routine. But maybe he heard that male artists last week started a trend of replacing the traditional white jacket with exotic alternatives. He wore black, but for a red tie. The jumpy video cameras must have disapproved. They did their best to avoid him all evening. In the concerto, though, Chang and her tight red gown were examined from every angle.

She, on the other hand, didn’t exactly examine Shostakovich from every angle. Rather she tackled the concerto head on, with a ferocious determination. Hers was a performance as athletic as it was musical. To say that she met the concerto’s considerable physical challenges with spectacular focus doesn’t begin to describe the surety of her technique.
Shostakovich began his 1948 concerto with a somber Nocturne and ended with sardonically manic Burlesque, this at a time when Soviet art was mandated to be upbeat. The composer didn’t dare let the score out, though, until after Stalin’s death five years later. Recordings of it by David Oistrakh, the great Russian violinist for whom the concerto was written, reveal music of deep feeling and ambiguous mood swings.

Chang’s performance was more in the line of avid defiance. There was never a question of hidden meanings, just in-your-face resistance. And frankly, with an arena crowd normally quick to raise a glass of Champagne or text on a cellphone, stronger tactics than seduction are sometimes called for. In the cadenza, the determined violinist mowed down opposition like a superhero. There was little subtlety to her playing, but her focus was extraordinarily tight and the wow factor very high.

The Fifth Symphony is famous for being Shostakovich’s double-edged answer to Stalin’s criticism of a composer with too strong a mind of his own. Like Chang, Slatkin appeared in no mood to delve into Shostakovichian irony or vainglory. He simply let the score be, a mighty symphony made of grand gestures and solemn melodies.

He did not exaggerate the grotesque satire or at the end get carried away with triumph. Instead he conducted each measure with a measured, moving expression. The orchestra showed sinew and also, when wanted, quiet beauty.

Slatkin began the concert with ‘Tahiti Trot,’ Shostakovich’s cute arrangement of ‘Tea for Two.’ He might well have donned a white jacket and continued in that entertaining vein with a jazz suite or some other lighter Shostakovich entertainment suitable for a warm evening. Instead he kept to the admirable high ground and got the full attention of players and crowd alike. Too bad the Met management wasn’t on hand to see how it’s done.

-- Mark Swed

[Update: an earlier version of this review said that Chang was 33 when she received the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame.]


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