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Foster Has Fine Night with Philharmonic

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Lawrence Foster is ever the reliable, eminently musical, if not necessarily charismatic, conductor. Twice Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, however, he was more.

He began the program with a splendid performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” played with warm passion by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After intermission there was another outstanding performance, this of Ravel’s short, “Alborada del Gracioso.”

Here Foster, a Los Angeles native most recently ensconced as music director of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, seemed the perfect dual citizen. He understood the Philharmonic and what works in the Bowl, and he understood Ravel’s sensuous evocation of early morning Spain. The score seemed to burst forth in splashy jets of color, ravishing and spectacular.

But although the programming was summertime routine, and although Foster is an old Bowl hand, neither half went quite as these early successes might have predicted. Following the Tchaikovsky, Foster was thrown Igor Zhukov as soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

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The Russian pianist, who was born in 1936, may be remembered by middle-aged record collectors for his authoritative recordings in the ‘60s. But after absenting himself from the keyboard for most of the last two decades to attempt a career as a conductor, Zhukov has recently returned to it. This was his Bowl debut.

Perhaps Zhukov was making a point. Prokoviev’s concerto is often a show piece, and a flashy pianist can make quite an impression in the brilliant, virtuosic last movement. Yet Zhukov, from his initial entrance in the first movement to the dazzling mechanical rhythms at the end of the last, seemed determined not to make an impression at all.

Slow to the point of abstinence, inner-directed to the point of uncommunicativeness, he connected each phrase with the last through a banal if-this-then-that logic. And so one watched and waited (the performance was interminable) with a kind of perverse fascination as Zhukov weighted down each tempo while Foster gallantly tried to maintain flow.

The middle movement was the most curious of all, each variation winding down like a mechanical watch losing tension in its spring. A conductor more intrigued by the idea of slowness and with enough rehearsal time to cope might have countered with something quasi-monumental, but instead Foster and the Philharmonic simply remained at sea.

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The glitches in the second half of three Ravel pieces were less dramatic or drastic. An unsteady account of “Pavane for a Dead Princess” was, I suspect, just one of those occasions when a performance starts off-kilter and never quite rights itself (a repeat could well have been lovely).

“Bolero” ended the program. And it was just fine. Foster maintained a kind of suave, sophisticated smoothness throughout, never succumbing to cheap effects but not quite rising to them either.

But conditions are not exactly ideal at the Bowl, and to achieve two first-rate performances in an evening remains an accomplishment that bodes well for the rest of Foster’s weeklong podium visit.


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