The violinist Gil Shaham recently said he had always been "cautious and worried" about performing Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Based on his commanding rendition Thursday with guest conductor Marin Alsop and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, he can stop worrying.
From the four drumbeats of Beethoven's ominous opening to the tuneful exuberance of his dance-like finale, Alsop and Shaham held listeners in their grip. When the long opening movement ended with delicate interplay between Shaham and bassoonist Shawn Mouser, it almost brought the audience of 8,110 to its feet. Shaham smiled, acknowledging the applause, then took a few moments to tune his violin before unveiling the lyrical beauty of the slow movement.
Alsop tends to favor slow tempos. In a great work like Beethoven's, as the late Michael Steinberg warned, searching for "depth" can prove ponderous. But her pacing here was finely judged. She was sensitive to her soloist while challenging him to conjure the formidable variety of tone, dynamics and virtuosity at his disposal.
Shaham's sound was alternately full and lean -- naturally richer in the Fritz Kreisler cadenzas in the first and last movements, which required him to play on several strings at once. In louder solo passages, the Bowl's amplification occasionally brought a slight edge to his generally golden sound, but his dynamic shading in the central Larghetto was a marvel, displaying a feathery touch that maintained clear articulation.
As the Bowl's video monitors showed, this was a fascinating concerto to watch unfold, because it relied on Shaham's pinpoint accuracy in playing a whole series of scales and patterns. Moreover, the score's magisterially conceived architecture required that he and Alsop maintain complete unity. At times, it seemed literally so. If Shaham had stood any closer to Alsop, he would have been on the podium.
The concert's curtain-raiser was Dvorak's "Slavonic Dance" in C major (Opus 46, No. 1), in a dutiful, if solidly structured, account. After intermission, Alsop returned with a shapely and buoyant performance of Dvorak's bucolic Symphony No. 8. It was a natural piece for the Bowl's outdoor setting, with the sound of crickets and a cool breeze adding to its luxuriant effect.
Best of all, Alsop brought out the Romantic melancholy underlying this seemingly lighthearted symphony. The Philharmonic's polished and blended sound was wondrous, with the brass and woodwinds having a very good night, especially William Lane on horn and Sarah Jackson on flute.