Music review: Bramwell Tovey not done yet at the Hollywood Bowl


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Bramwell Tovey is back. On Tuesday night, the nimble British conductor returned to his summer haunt of three years and began his final two-week stint as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. The upcoming programming is mildly exotic and lively, including a concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway operetta ‘Candide’ Thursday night, and next week a rarely heard Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto as well as John Adams’ seldom-performed ‘Fearful Symmetries’ with Diavolo Dance Theater providing the choreography.

But Tuesday was all meat and potatoes. The program also provided an adieu -- Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the composer’s last major score, written in 1918 in an England shell-shocked from the Great War. ‘Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away, never to return,’ Elgar wrote. My eye landed randomly on these adjectives in Orin Howard’s descriptive program note: austere, autumnal, pathetic, despairing, dour, dourer.


Tovey, however, is none of those things. He has a deadpan sense of humor and a witty, sarcastic side that is tempered with a twinkle in his eye. His Elgar, even here, was not without a sprightly touch of pomp and circumstance, and he surrounded the Cello Concerto with enthusiastically winning performances of Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger’ Overture and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which Wagner famously called the apotheosis of the dance.

Elgar’s music, and especially the Cello Concerto, might be dubbed the antithesis of the dance. But not only was Tovey’s Elgar unsentimental, displaying the more forward-looking aspects of the composer that scholars have lately found intriguing, but he had as soloist a young German cellist, Daniel Müller-Schott, noted for his spotlessly pure sound and youthfully dexterous technique. In fact, if anyone could fleetly dance through late Elgar while honoring the half-lit beauty of the music, it is Müller-Schott. And yet everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet about his playing was marred by a virtuosically micro-managed vibrato I found as annoying as the guy across the aisle from me who played with his iPhone throughout the concerto.

He might land on a note lasting more than a nanosecond, with a wonderful exactness of pitch and tone. But he would then likely overseason it with the fussy vibrato. String players, in this video age, also need to be aware of how close-ups on wiggling fingers powerfully massaging strings, which Bowl camera operators can’t get enough of, and enhanced by amplification, draw extra attention to the vibrations.

Still, Müller-Schott made up for much with his extraordinary grace in the few fast passages. They were very moving.

Not surprisingly, Tovey preceded Beethoven’s Seventh with amusing comments. He likened the breathless Scherzo to a fast talker you can’t wait to get away from. We’ll no doubt have different takes on this symphony in the coming season. Jeffrey Kahane will devote a full concert, ‘Discover Beethoven 7,’ with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra this fall to the symphony. Gustavo Dudamel begins 2011 with the Seventh at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The L.A. Philharmonic performance Tuesday was a marvelous apotheosis of rhythm. Tovey had but a fraction of the rehearsal time Dudamel will get -- the summer is like that. And he smartly didn’t worry about subtle details, which are lost outdoors anyway. He got into a rhythmic groove and let the powerful Beethovenian g-force produce a momentum that glued listeners to their seats.

This seemed exactly right for a chilly night near the end of the summer when both the orchestra and audience needed a little warming up. Even the guy across from me put away his cellphone, although the performance probably produced enough energy to have extended his battery life. Unlike Elgar, Tovey is clearly going out on the bright side.

-- Mark Swed