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MUSIC REVIEW : A Tchaikovsky Tradition Minus Fireworks at Bowl

Times Music Writer

A new tradition grafted onto an old one continues at Hollywood Bowl. For the 20th annual set of Tchaikovsky Spectacular concerts at the Bowl, over the weekend, a visiting orchestra again took over the duties formerly assigned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Pittsburgh Symphony, completing a five-night engagement in Cahuenga Pass, played two performances of the Tchaikovsky program--traditionally ending with the “1812" Overture, accompanied by fireworks--the third touring orchestra in three summers to do so, while our Philharmonic takes some nights off.

A less virtuosic ensemble than the Montreal Symphony, which played this gig in 1987, the Pittsburgh orchestra is nevertheless a solid musical body with genuine capabilities for finesse. If its playing lacks the muscularity and heftiness of sound we are used to in the work of the L.A. Philharmonic, Pittsburgh’s resources include an uncommon strength of ensemble, effortless blending of choirs and first-rate soloists.

No musical disappointments, then, greeted 17,835 greedy Tchaikovsky lovers at the second hearing, Saturday night.

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But, for the first time in these two decades of Spectaculars, the fireworks show had to be canceled when the county fire marshal deemed the Santa Ana wind conditions too hazardous for such display. For once, we heard the “1812" Overture unadorned and undistracted by visuals.

Fortunately, Jerzy Semkow, the Paris-based, Polish-born conductor who had made his Southern California debut only Thursday night, is a leader of both depth and urgency. With strong cooperation from the Pennsylvania players, as well as the assisting USC Trojan Marching Band, Semkow brought vigor and boldness to the familiar score. He gave due attention to its lyric elements while keeping its climactic conclusion in sight.

Semkow achieved similar results in the program-opening Polonaise from “Eugene Onegin,” and in “Romeo and Juliet.”

In the former, brilliant instrumentalism was underlined by stylishness and authenticity of accent. In the overture-fantasy, a solid and dramatic game plan kept all musical elements in balance; without dawdling, Semkow delivered the strong emotions and overall sweep in this deceptively fragmented score.

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Making his Bowl debut, pianist Barry Douglas, winner of the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, proved a model of typecasting in the First Piano Concerto. At 28, the tall Irish pianist cuts a Byronic figure. More important, his playing seems to consist of equal parts heroism and sensitivity.

Douglas has the fingers, the strength and the stamina--even more than he needs, apparently-- for this most challenging of concerto assignments. Yet, he can caress the highly exposing leggerezza of the Andantino semplice with beautifully gauged control.

A certain lack of spontaneity marked his playing of the opening movement, which he nevertheless traversed effortlessly and with clear-cut recognition of its structural elements. The central Andantino revealed a full but unstrident tone, and razor-sharp distinctions between pianistic touches.

No fatigue--the telltale characteristic most young pianists bring to the last movement--marked Douglas’ fleet, full-throated and imperturbable playing of the finale. The pianist’s return, in a recital scheduled at El Camino College, March 8, should be an occasion of high interest.

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Official Friday attendance: 17,851.


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