Review: Great blast of Britten by Tovey and L.A. Phil at Disney Hall

On the weeks when the Los Angeles Philharmonic puts on a Casual Fridays concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, it leaves something out of the full program, usually the first work, so the concert can proceed without intermission. Last Friday, Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" got the ax, probably without much regret. The chestnut might have seemed too much like kids' stuff when targeting an audience of young urban professionals.

So the bill was guest conductor Bramwell Tovey's own trumpet concerto, "Songs of the Paradise Saloon," inspired by, no kidding, a mass murderer — followed by Shostakovich's blockbusting Fifth Symphony.


But at the Sunday matinee, where the audience was an appealing mix of ages and the concert menu included the full three substantial courses, Britten proved the real knockout. There is no better adult music for kids, no better introduction to the orchestra for anyone.

Best of all, the "Young Person's Guide" is a great showpiece for a great hall. Presumably it was L.A. Phil's contribution to the celebrations around town this fall of the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth, but it was, in fact, an ideal showcase for the 10th anniversary of Disney Hall.

"Young Person's Guide," however, would not have suited Disney Hall had the optional narration describing the instruments of the orchestra been included. People sitting behind the stage told me at intermission they couldn't understand a word the conductor said when he later introduced his concerto. After a decade, the house PA system still stinks.

But the L.A. Phil sounded exceptional. Tovey gets typecast as a lightweight. He has become the New York Philharmonic's go-to guy for early summer light classics. As the former L.A. Phil principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl, and still a Bowl regular, he can be relied upon to conduct everything from Philip Glass to war horses and the occasional welcome outlier like Percy Grainger. He's a jokester speaking to the audience, with a dry, cutting wit. He is not, apparently, fussy.

But put him in front of the L.A. Phil in Disney Hall, with proper rehearsal, and he becomes a sound-generating monster.

In "Young Person's Guide," flutes and piccolos screeched resplendently (yes, such a thing is possible and desirable), trumpets dazzled and the timpani delivered blows hard enough to maybe cause concussions to anyone seated in the front row. The effects, from the top of the orchestra to the bottom, were sensational and I'm sorry that the Friday night downtown lawyers and hipsters couldn't have had their minds blown as well.

"Songs of the Paradise Saloon," which featured popular British trumpet soloist Alison Balsom, is a concerto derived from Tovey's opera "The Inventor." The protagonist, Alexander Keith Jr., was a real-life 19th century New York con artist.

"He was a sociopath but loving father, an adored husband yet a notorious criminal whose deeds included murder and fraud," Tovey writes in his program note for the concerto. "His final crime was to blow up an ocean-going liner, killing almost 100 passengers and maiming many more."

The Paradise Saloon was a notorious New York hangout where Keith could be found scheming and seducing chambermaids. In the concerto, which is a set of variations, the trumpet is Keith at work. Different musical styles and different kinds of instruments (fluegelhorn, cornet and piccolo trumpet) represent the different approaches he takes, depending upon his victim.

The concerto ranges through a series of variations of a melancholy, elusive theme that are jazzy, moody, dance-like, surprisingly depressed, less surprisingly sexy, but not jolly. There is a desperate quality to Tovey's score as if the composer doesn't quite dare to make Keith likable, as much as he'd like to.

That nervousness was felt as well in Balsom's carefully dazzling performance. Technically she can do it all. But she brought little personality to a musical portrayal of Keith. She's young, attractive, stylish, sophisticated. Sleaze seems to be asking too much of her. She plays a mean Baroque trumpet on her bestselling recordings, and perhaps she would have been more comfortable following Britten with more Purcell.


The Fifth is the triumphant 1937 symphony that got Shostakovich back in Soviet good graces after his having run afoul of Stalin. Today the common approach is to treat the score as if coded with anti-Soviet irony.

Tovey let the Fifth speak spectacularly for itself, loud (very loud) and clear until slowing down at the end so that grandeur would retain seemly solemnity yet not so slow as to overdo the bombast. But he might just as well have let go, because Tovey got such a big, fulfilling sound from the orchestra in this symphony that there was no countering a sense of enormous excitement.