Just when we thought it was safe to forget about Hollywood Bowl for a while, along come Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the regular tenant at Daisy Dell, played its seasonal finale Saturday night. Valedictory fireworks smeared the sky with glitzy delirium as a young guest conductor waved his stick and the dauntless band tried to puncture the din with a little Handel.
Live television was watching and gushing. The fans cheered. We had every right to think that high alfresco culture, Southern California-style, had reached its peak.
But that wasn't all, folks.
Monday, as an instant addendum, the Bowl witnessed what may have been the best concert of the summer. The Austrian elite happened to be passing through town, and they brought along their favorite American conductor. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Don't misunderstand. Our 17,000-seat amphitheater wasn't suddenly transformed into the Musikvereinssaal.
Those infernal airplanes kept on adding their predictable buzz-obbligato to pianissimo passages. A couple of stentorian visitors up there in distant right field insisted on serenading the throng with a private, non-stop fortissimo conversation. The cold night air had its way with the unaccustomed brass. The visiting ensemble, never the most precise in the world, gave some indication of logistical disorientation.
Somehow, it hardly mattered.
The monstrous amplification was, for once, on relatively good behavior. The Philharmoniker played with the suavity of phrase, the mellowness of tone and the pervasive warmth that have been their hallmark for nearly 150 years.
And Bernstein, who can conduct like a willful brat or a demented ballerino when the mood is wrong, reminded us that he also can be a great musician. Apparently it is only a matter of context, stimulation and inclination.
The long evening began with a gemutlich --that is, cozy, relaxed and slightly untidy--performance of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. We were, thank goodness, spared national anthems.
Peter Schmidl stepped up from the first desk to play the grateful, intricate solo part with strong and sweet tone, with lovely dynamic accents and an air of unflappable calm. Actually, his rhythm and breath both turned out to be flappable. The spirit, however, was eminently willing.
Bernstein and friends provided suave, unobtrusive support.
After intermission, they turned triumphantly to the serious business at hand: Mahler's Fifth Symphony.
Bernstein has been a prime champion of this music in our time. The vast canvas, the bombastic climaxes counterbalanced by passages of infinite delicacy, the unabashed sprawling indulgence of the exercise--these elements have always brought out the best, or the worst, in him.
On bad nights, an easily overwrought Bernstein has succumbed to exaggeration. On good nights, he has managed to keep everything in perspective.
This was a good night, indeed. He attended to the constant shifts in flow and impulse with subtle flexibility. He attended with equal sensitivity to the dramatic stress and the lyric pathos. He conveyed the brutal and the tender, the heroic and the macabre, the cataclysmic and the folksy with natural point.
The urgency never flagged, and the line never sagged. This Mahler, tormented one moment and ecstatic the next, never succumbed to distortion, never turned opaque.
Bernstein sustained control, banished hysteria. He also confined his most picturesque dancing to the moments of most drastic contrast. For him, it was an uncommonly restrained performance. For us it was an illuminating one.
An audience of 11,943 responded accordingly.