This was the week that the Los Angeles Philharmonic dared to mess with its moneymaking formula of programming warhorse concertos for nearly every classical concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Tuesday night, Philip Glass' 21-year-old Violin Concerto (a newborn by Bowl standards) came off splendidly. Thursday night, an even younger percussion concerto by Christopher Rouse did as well.
Tuesday's program was conducted by the first Philharmonic principal guest conductor at the Bowl, Leonard Slatkin. On Thursday, his successor and the current holder of the title, Bramwell Tovey, was on the podium. The effect was as if a baton had been passed; the programs were similar. Each newish American concerto was followed after intermission by a British potboiler.
Clearly, Holst's "The Planets" -- not Rouse's formidably named "Der Gerettete Alberich" -- is what lured a good-sized crowd Thursday, along with the added attraction of planetary imagery, courtesy of NASA, projected on the Bowl's video monitors. But in the case of the concerto, it helps to know that Rouse has a knack for outlandish gestures, a deep and abiding love of rock 'n' roll, a competitive obsession with getting orchestras to play louder than they ever have in the past, and a sense of humor. "Alberich," or whatever one should call the score for short, is a riot, in more ways than one.
The title translates as "Alberich Saved." Alberich is the evil dwarf in Wagner's "Ring" cycle, the only character who survives the downfall of the gods. Wagner allows him to live on to corrupt a new generation. And Rouse takes the bait. The solo percussion part, written for Evelyn Glennie and performed Thursday by Colin Currie, represents the protagonist.
The 1997 concerto -- or "fantasy," as Rouse also calls it -- begins with the final bars of the final "Ring" opera, "Gotterdammerung." Brunhilde has burned. The Rhine has flooded the home of the gods. Wagner's music implies the creation of the Earth, a new ecology for humans to foul, and as the famous coda dies away, Rouse's gnome sneaks back onto the stage in one of the creepiest and craziest entrances in all concerto literature. The opening rasps and clattering of wood blocks quickly accelerate as Alberich views the landscape, gets his bearings and then starts carrying on.
The orchestra plays around with themes from the "Ring," while Alberich simply plays around. The character is delusional as ever. He thinks he's a pop star, so Currie, at one point, hopped on a set of traps. A wide array of instruments presents the wily little guy in an assortment of disguises. His visions of grandeur, while amusing, are not without their edge. Currie's magnificent performance of the delirious cadenza was both thrilling and a bit nerve-racking. Rouse said in his program note that he was inspired by the portrayal of Wagner in Ken Russell's out-of-control biopic "Lisztomania."
I'm not sure I thought I'd ever ask this question, but where was Ken Russell when we needed him? In 1983, Russell made a riotous television film to the accompaniment of Holst's "The Planets" that would have been just the thing to go along with Tovey's unobjectionably straightforward reading of the score.
Not that there isn't fascination to be found in colorized pictures of pockmarked planets shot from spaceships. Were NASA to supply these misty outer-space views slowly dissolving into one another as a screen saver, I'd be more than happy to install them on my computer. But as Tovey, who is British, surely knows as well as anyone, Holst didn't have the solar system in mind. His planets are characters, as rich as those that Elgar described in his "Enigma Variations," which was played Tuesday. Russell's film is a view of quixotic, quirky Britain. The NASA stuff, uninterestingly timed to the music, made lively music feel dull.
Tovey led an equally straightforward performance of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to open the program. All that was needed to set the stage for Rouse's Wagner fantasy and add a bit of danger to a safe performance was a copter overhead. But the Bowl management waited too long to call 911. The chopper didn't arrive until the end of the performance, during the most ethereal moment in "The Planets," as "Neptune" dies away. The women of the Pacific Chorale supplied the offstage chorus.