Hollywood Bowl, our vast and vastly irrational circus of musically accompanied picnics under the stars, has seen many an odd, weird and/or bizarre concert in its night. Still, the program cranked out Tuesday deserves some sort of prize.
Here was a definitive demonstration of unabashed artistic perversity.
Christopher Hogwood--a British specialist in scholarly, precise, intimate realizations of Baroque and early Classical challenges--was engaged to lead a massive orchestral agenda devoted to the Romanticism of Rossini, Grieg and Tchaikovsky.
Although Orrin Howard provided illuminating program notes as usual, and although nothing on the popsy agenda threatened to strain anyone's thinking processes, the maestro deemed it necessary to pause for a series of music-appreciation mini-lectures throughout the evening.
He also decided to reseat the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the second violins and cellos switching accustomed places. In the process, he wrought a certain degree of acoustical havoc in the electronically boosted shell. He also elicited generally lethargic and untidy performances from the players, who, at the beginning of the third week of the summer season, already sounded like an ensemble in need of a vacation.
As if all this weren't enough to frazzle fragile sensibilities, Russell Sherman--a late-reblooming piano virtuoso who has made his mark as an essentially intellectual interpreter of thorny Beethoven, knotty Liszt and formidable modernists--was engaged to splash through the gush of the Grieg Concerto.
Once in a while, such flirtations with the unexpected turn out to be stimulating, even illuminating. Other times, they merely testify to the artistic futility of anti-type casting. This was one of the other times.
The non-festivities began with a lumbering traversal of Rossini's "Barbiere di Siviglia" overture, for which the orchestra was unnecessarily large, the textures unnecessarily thick, the tempo unnecessarily slow, the nuances unnecessarily blunt. Despite his clever introductory remarks, Hogwood kept charm at a distance when he started beating time.
In the innocent days of pre-yore, the Grieg Concerto rated high on everyone's list of Favorite Slushpump Masterpieces. Even at a time when its easy rhetoric, harmonic naivete and melodic sentiment have fallen into disrepute (or an unreasonable facsimile thereof), the Concerto still can exert its sweet nostalgic appeal.
In order to appreciate it, however, one needs to be able to forget "Song of Norway." One also needs a vital, stylish, sensitive performance.
Tuesday, the infernal distortions of "Song of Norway" haunted the senses relentlessly, while Sherman and Hogwood muddled Grieg's gentle rhetoric. The pianist lent new meaning to the concept of mannered indulgence with a performance that started and stopped, shrank and stretched, chopped and clunked, sighed and roared--at will and without obvious inner motivation.
Even more damaging, this turned out to be a performance fraught with technical gaffes, a performance that often sounded clumsy just when it wanted to sound elegant.
The conductor tended to slow down when one hoped he would speed up. In general, he could offer neither inspired leadership nor dedicated accompaniment.
After intermission, Hogwood examined Act III of Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty." This pretty, hippety-hop music makes good illustrative sense when it supports brilliant dancing. Unfortunately, it doesn't sustain much independent interest in the abstract, and Hogwood's incessant interruptions for verbal footnotage invoked discomforting memories of the patronizing teacher on the podium at a children's concert. Some of us are too old for this sort of thing.
An audience officially tabulated at 8,554 applauded politely.