Entertainment & Arts

Review: Hollywood Bowl’s odd couple makes it work

A good place for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to try out new talent, the Hollywood Bowl can be curiously hospitable to odd couples. Concerts are one-night stands, so there is less to lose than at downtown subscription concerts, where programs are repeated three or four times.

But the complicated Bowl schedule can mean an almost haphazard mix and match between soloist and conductor on occasion. It requires speed dating, given that the typical program has a single rehearsal the morning of the concert.

On rare memorable occasions, sparks fly, as do disastrous tugs of war. Usually, though, professional blandness is the nice way of acknowledging that there is no time to actually figure anything out interpretively.

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Thursday night’s odd couple was truly odd by not quite fitting into any of the above. The good-natured, veteran early music specialist Nicholas McGegan, a popular and regular L.A Phil guest conductor, was on hand for an all-Mendelssohn program. His soloist was a newcomer, the Romantically inclined young Taiwanese star violinist Ray Chen. He is seldom seen without an Armani accouterment and blogs about the sexiness of self-grooming.

The collaboration didn’t not work, if I can be permitted the wishy-washy elusiveness of a double negative. The two musicians seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s approach, to go by their facial expressions, which were beamed as they always are now on the Bowl’s big screens. But they each remained in their own interpretive worlds.

Still, that kind of goodwill goes a long way. And so do Chen’s chops. That he makes a big sound had to be inferred from the amplification. But the physicality of his playing was obvious.

Whereas virtuosity once implied making technical challenges look and sound effortless, Chen is a creature of the showier video age. He may have sported an elegantly tailored tuxedo (more and more Bowl guests are no longer finding the traditional summer white jackets in style). But he signaled each virtuosic feat more like an Olympic athlete in a track outfit, glorying in the effort for everyone to see.


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Chen’s tone is like that too. Rather than glide his bow across the strings as if gravity could be defied, he conveyed the corporeal sense of pressure. It’s a complex sound with a grainy texture that you can almost feel. Every phrase in the Mendelssohn was treated to fervent expression, although a fervent expression that never for a second appeared spontaneous. He’s worked out every move.

McGegan, on the other hand, is all about the music, so much so that he seems to devote himself almost exclusively to the art of spontaneous liveliness. He bounds onto the podium, and the video screens showed him delightfully uninhibited in his urging the orchestra revel in every moment. He didn’t bother with a baton, preferring to wave his hands and fists wildly but expressively. No gesture looked for a second contrived.

The middle-ground compromise, then, was that McGegan gave Chen all the arm room he needed to convey big Romantic effects in what may be the most overplayed concerto in the standard repertory. Still, the violinist came up with nothing new. His showiness never helped him make a point. But he played flawlessly and delighted the crowd, which loudly called for, but didn’t get, an encore.

McGegan and Mendelssohn seem all but made for each other, and maybe they are. The British conductor, who founded and has long led the outstanding Bay Area period instrument orchestra, Philharmonia Baroque, has been lately turning to traditional 19th century music with modern orchestras. He was recently named principal guest conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, with which he has a Chopin and Dvorák program coming up in January.

At the Bowl on Thursday, he began with Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture and ended with the Symphony No. 3, known as the “Scottish.” In both Scots-flavored scores, McGegan made beguiling melodies flow like thickly sweet, amber aural honey. He could also be a storm chaser, racing and delightedly thumping whenever Mendelssohn gave him a chance.

Fun was to be had. But late summer Bowl doldrums also seemed to have already started setting in. Maybe there simply wasn’t enough rehearsal time or maybe McGegan has fully settled into the overture and symphony, but much of the time, the playing felt routine.

There were exceptions. The brass was brilliant. Mendelssohn loved the clarinet, and associate principal clarinetist Burt Hara breathed fresh air into his solos.


McGegan returns to the Bowl on Sept. 3, more familiarly with Mozart and Beethoven.

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