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The Bowl’s French program lacks one little thing

Times Staff Writer

You hope for fireworks, but you get a hand-held sparkler. It’s nobody’s fault. Practicalities must prevail. Still, you can’t help questioning the wisdom of programming Saint-Saens’ grand “Organ” Symphony with an electronic organ, as was done Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.

Bramwell Tovey, the new principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl -- an awkward if precise title -- opened a two-part French program with the Saint-Saens symphony. Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” closed the concert.

For some, the evening was haunted by memories of Charles Dutoit conducting the “Organ” Symphony with the Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall in April. The mighty Disney Hall organ could be felt gloriously, almost as much as it could be heard. In both cases, the organist was Joanne Pearce Martin, but, unfortunately, a pipe organ couldn’t be trucked into the Bowl.

All the same, Tovey, who prefaced the performance with genial remarks from the stage, had valuable ideas about the piece. He led a straightforward, transparent, unfussy performance. He was careful about distinguishing colors and line and about maintaining momentum. He exercised restraint but let loose at the climaxes. If the big organ moments fell short of their intended effect, there were compensations in the clarity of the other parts.

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The amplification system, which made the winds prominent, sometimes at the expense of the brass, provided clear if somewhat compressed stereophonic distinctions.

After intermission, Tovey turned to Berlioz’s programmatic symphony (composed when he was 26), again introducing the work with droll, informative comments.

He also approached this work directly and with moderation. Some of the composer’s most crazed and exaggerated moments were damped down. But the piece progressed intelligently, admirably.

The bassoons’ chortling counterpoint in the “March to the Scaffold” (played by Shawn Mouser, Michele Grego and Patricia Kindel) and the interplay of the English horn (Carolyn Hove) and offstage oboe (Marion Arthur Kuszyk) in the “Scene in the County” were among the highlights.

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Tovey doesn’t seem to have an ego problem. There were few shots of him projected onto the screens at the sides of the stage. Despite a handful of misjudgments, such as focusing on the triangle player during the pianist’s sweeps up the keyboard in the Saint-Saens, the emphasis was on the players. Some might say that was just as it should have been.

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chris.pasles@latimes.com


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