Some years ago, Matthias Bamert was featured in several peculiar classical music videos produced for television in Switzerland and released here as "Classic Visions" by BMG. In them, the Swiss conductor finds himself in one surreal skit after another. He might be standing in a bullring, as matador with baton and cape in pursuit of his soloist, a pretty young violinist playing the bull. Or he might be leading an orchestra in a decadent cafe full of sleazy goings-on.
Quaint though these efforts were, they have charm and a lot of it came from Bamert. He is not a conductor with a huge amount of stage presence, but he nonetheless wore whatever outlandish get-up was necessary, and he gamely did whatever silly thing the director wanted. And besides that, the actual music making was quite good.
Bamert is this week's guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. His programs (Tuesday night it was Bach, Mendelssohn and Brahms warhorse Fourth Symphony, tonight it will be all-Mozart) do not exactly reflect the spirit of adventure that he brought to those videos or that he brings to the intellectually stimulating and impressively stellar Lucerne Festival he heads each summer.
And yet Tuesday Bamert seemed game once more, only this time to re-create the feel of a good old-fashioned night at the Bowl, a time when the elegant shell was unencumbered by towers of speakers and lights, when there was the calming pool between audience and stage, when life had fewer distractions, and music, consequently, seemed to have more color and more presence.
Bamert got the mood right from the start by programming Leopold Stokowski's transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This is exceedingly familiar music; it was, after all, featured in "Fantasia," but it is also exceedingly unfamiliar in concert in these sophisticated days of Bach played on period instruments played with historical insight. But after all that history, Stokowski's neon is starting to sound fresh and wonderful again.
Bamert also has a hint of Stokowski's touch. He certainly has none of Stokowski's glamorous aura, and he is smart enough not to pretend that he does. But he has an ear for color and an ear for interesting balance. Moreover, his podium manner is both rigid enough to maintain firm control over the orchestra and enthusiastic enough to inspire the players to give their best. The results he got from the Philharmonic was consistently first-rate all program long.
Equally shrewd was the inclusion of Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1, the kind of work that sounds a lot more familiar than it is and that was a lot more likely to be programmed at the Bowl years ago than it is now. Who knows why some works come and go from favor? This concerto has all the same virtues as Mendelssohn's ubiquitous Violin Concerto, the same sense of inspired melody, of delightfully unexpected developments and of a composer bursting at the seams with invention and enthusiasm.
And it especially sounded that way when presented with the glittering passage work of Canadian pianist Louis Lortie and with Bamert's alert accompaniment. This, too, was a performance full of old-fashioned values, one that managed to bring out the maximum amount of color in the music without exaggerating anything else.
In Brahms' Fourth, Bamert was again Stokowskian in the best sense, especially in making the music speak outdoors. Although his overall approach to the symphony is conventional, Bamert likes to pull off little surprises. He might suddenly take a phrase unusually slowly for the moderate tempo he has set, or bring out the brass or the winds in unpredictable ways. But the bigger and better surprise was the way Bamert turned affectation into revelation, connecting the moment to the ongoing development of the work. And he didn't even have to wear a funny costume to do it.