RILLING CONDUCTS BACH PASSION : SOMBER BOWL (PRE)OPENING

Times Music Critic

Next week Hollywood Bowl is supposed to open its annual season of amplified music-making, casual concertizing, wine-bottle rolling, glass breaking, competitive picnicking, airplane watching and conspicuous socializing under the stars. The inaugural ceremonies are slated for July 9, with Leonard Slatkin presiding as guest maestro.

That's just a sleight of hype.

For all practical purposes--and impractical ones too--the Bowl opened its musical gates Tuesday night. The balloons, beacons, classical-pop marathons and general self-congratulation may have been missing. But to call the festive event in question a "preseason" concert makes about as much sense as calling an expectant mother pre-pregnant or a corpse pre-dead.

It must be admitted that the opening wasn't exactly what one would call zippy. Some of the innocents out front did seem a bit disappointed by the absence of hum-along Tchaikovsky, Strauss waltzes, Gershwin rhapsodies, climactic fireworks and lofty excerpts pried from "Star Wars."

Nevertheless, those who knew why they had purchased tickets (at reduced "preseason" prices) could not have been too unhappy. The Los Angeles Philharmonic management was playing host, after all, to Helmuth Rilling and forces of the vaunted Oregon Bach Festival. They were offering what seemed like a poignant performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion."

The qualifier, alas, is important. Seemed like.

The 18,000-seat Bowl simply is too vast for Bach's essentially intimate rhetoric, and, even with the microphones working reasonably well, the performing conditions in our great outdoors are too fraught with distraction. In addition to some electronic inequities, the distractions on this occasion included aeronautical invasions, fire and/or police siren obbligatos and--need it be mentioned?--sweltering heat.

Under the circumstances, the 5,787 who braved the elements did not invariably find it easy to sustain concentration on Bach's solemn rhetoric during the 3 1/2-hour endurance test. Rilling's integrity precludes cutting so much as a note, just as his interpretive credo precludes any hint of expressive excess or sentimental indulgence.

In a reasonably intimate concert hall, Rilling's Bach invariably overwhelms with its simplicity, its sincerity, its dramatic balance and musical logic. Although the maestro is a scholar of international renown and a podium virtuoso with few peers in this repertory, his taste and restraint cannot make maximum impact in a forum designed for the multitudes.

Flashier Bach, more ornate Bach, more Romantic Bach might have a better chance in the chasm of Cahuenga Pass. That, of course, wouldn't have been Rilling's Bach. There is no room in this conductor's vocabulary for easy bathos or for externalized brilliance.

While the gentlemen in his chorus and orchestra doffed their jackets, the stoic Rilling sported white turtleneck and tails throughout. Calmly, as if he alone were wafted by the winds of an air-conditioned studio, he moved the recitatives with gentle point, the choruses with focused energy, the arias with lyrical poise, the chorales with benign serenity.

As a stylist, Rilling favors reasonably small forces, an authentic instrument or two where possible, and a generous continuo scheme that punctuates the narration with telling shafts of color. The stress is on clarity of reproduction. Most of the dramatizing is left to Bach.

Given the heat and humidity, the Oregon Festival orchestra can be forgiven a few rough patches, and the chorus--not quite as suave and secure as in other years--can be forgiven a scramble or two. The spirits remained emphatically willing.

Vocally, the performance was dominated by the suave, crisply enunciated, somewhat reserved Evangelist of David Gordon, by the sonorous and dignified Jesus of Douglas Lawrence and by the sweet tone and flexibility of the soprano solos as sung by Costanza Cuccaro. Scot Weir, replacing Aldo Baldin, tended gracefully to the tenor arias.

Julia Hamari's potentially lush mezzo-soprano sounded thick and monochromatic, however, and her German enunciation tended toward the mushy. William Parker trod somewhat unsteadily through the bass arias. The incidental soloists, recruited from the chorus, proved less than mellifluous.

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