Tuesday night, for the 87th time, the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened its classical music series at the Hollywood Bowl. For the first time, at least as far as anyone could remember, it rained.
Less a downpour than a spritz from a passing cloud, the moisture nevertheless got everyone’s attention. Midway through the national anthem, some in the audience, unsure of the new sensation, brushed away drops as if they were insects. Then, with the first work on the program, “Urban Runway” -- by the evening’s maestro, Bramwell Tovey -- the fun began.
Tovey is the new Philharmonic principal guest conductor at the Bowl. Although this British conductor and composer (and jazz pianist) is music director of the Vancouver Symphony, he has made his reputation in the States with his breeziness. He is chatty and likes to entertain the audience.
The New York Philharmonic has hired him to run its frothy June series of light classics. Our orchestra, even though it enjoys competing with the East Coast establishment during the winter season, now wants much the same thing from him at the Bowl.
A joint L.A. and New York Philharmonic commission, “Urban Runway” had its premiere last week in Avery Fisher Hall as part of the New York orchestra’s otherwise patriotic Fourth of July program. On Tuesday, Tovey joked that he would have liked to call it “The Empire Strikes Back,” but the title was taken. He got his musical digs in, though, with what turned out to be kind of “An Englishman in New York and L.A.” -- or more specifically, ". . . on Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive.”
In a pleasantly brassy, jazzy style, he gently mocked the different strutting styles of fashionistas East and West (they’re cockier and heavier, we’re slimmer and more athletic), and he gave the violas a lyrical middle section -- sweet music for the energy-efficient, organic-food, secondhand-clothes set.
The piece is just under nine minutes, which was almost exactly how long the rain lasted. So while the orchestra revealed a Rodeo Drive parade, the audience huddled beneath jackets or plastic garbage bags, even an upturned plastic bowl or two -- fashionistas suddenly looking like forlorn refugees.
Completing the program were Strauss’ tone poem “Don Juan” and Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” What with the earthy nature of “Carmina Burana” -- its Latin and old German love poetry given gung-ho music for chorus, orchestra and vocal soloists -- Tovey noted that something sacred might have made a good contrast. But he decided the evening should be “all profane all the time.”
Together, “Don Juan” and “Carmina Burana” provide a good deal of musical lust from a couple of Bavarian composers. But Tovey kept Strauss’ Don in check, and the great lover seemed to swagger like yet another amusing character in Beverly Hills. The orchestra sounded bright and played as if on its toes from too little rehearsal.
“Carmina” also lacked finesse, yet Tovey’s fine sense of forward motion, general good nature and love of a rousing tune were compensation. What can be R-rated music under a sensualist’s baton here won an uncontroversial PG. Virgins cavorted playfully. Fickle Fortune was made an untroubling hero.
Of the three vocal soloists, the baritone is the most important, and Eugene Chan (a substitute for Keith Phares, who took ill at the last moment) had a big night. A 24-year-old in San Francisco Opera’s Merola training program, he sang with ardent Italianate warmth, if not quite the sardonic edge that Orff suggests. Soprano Cyndia Sieden soared and was the one performer who supplied a hint of eroticism. Orff meant to strain his tenor; Benjamin Butterfield complied.
The chorus was the Pacific Chorale, which sang with fervor. Orff, who was also famous for his music teaching methods, curiously asks youngsters to sing about things they should be too young to sing about. But presumably no one translated the Latin text for the kids of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, who were fresh and vibrant. The sound system, modestly upgraded this year, balanced the large forces well.