Review: At the Hollywood Bowl, breathing life into the most famous symphony ever written

Soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Ken-David Masur perform at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016.
(Christina House / For The Times)

In his book “Conducting Business,” Leonard Slatkin, former principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, recalls a time when bowl audiences cheered after the first four notes (ta-ta-ta-TA) of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 were played.

On Tuesday night, a large Bowl crowd held their cheers until conductor Ken-David Masur, making his Philharmonic debut, brought the first movement to a powerful close.

For the record:

7:49 p.m. Jan. 27, 2022An earlier version of this review contained a typographical error and used the word “brasses” instead of “basses” in describing how conductor Ken-David Masur highlighted cellos and basses.

Masur, the youngest son of conductor Kurt Masur, who was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2002, replaced an indisposed Joana Carneiro in a program also featuring Beethoven’s Overture to “Fidelio” and Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist.

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Looking younger than his 39 years, Masur comes to the Bowl with impeccable credentials, including conducting studies with his authoritative father, who died in December at 88. A well-seasoned musician, Masur is the assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Munich Symphony. He’s held the post of associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony, and he also studied singing in Berlin with bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff.

At the Bowl, the slender Masur proved a formidable technician, displaying a natural podium manner and persuasive musicianship. He gave a fleet, clear-textured account of Beethoven’s Fifth, steering the Phil through the calms and storms of the opening Allegro with authority.

Conducting without a baton, Masur used a score but hardly looked at it. He showed an impressive structural grasp both in his warm and perfectly paced Andante and in his supple shaping of the score’s wraith-like transition from the Scherzo into the bracing Allegro finale. Masur also highlighted the riveting virtuosity of the Phil’s cellos and basses in the Scherzo’s trio section.

The concert’s curtain-raiser, Beethoven’s Overture to “Fidelio,” was sensitively shaped by Masur, conveying the score’s hard-earned joy.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto, like Beethoven’s Fifth, is another enduring audience favorite. Jascha Heifetz was also a fan — his recording with Alfred Wallenstein and the Phil is justly famous — and with good reason. The score offers soloists challenging passages for virtuosic display and, while richly melodic, it’s also pungent and skittishly inventive.

The Moravian-born Korngold repurposed several themes from his pioneering 1930s Hollywood film scores — “Another Dawn,” “Juárez,” “Anthony Adverse” and “The Prince and the Pauper” — for this dazzling 1945 concerto. Shaham’s playing captivated from the work’s quiet opening bars and never let up. Given the soloist’s concentrated, unsentimental account, especially in the sustained lyricism of the central Romanze, the applause after each of the three movements was well deserved.

Masur, skillfully turning the Phil into a Richard Strauss orchestra, conveyed Korngold’s affinity for that composer’s opulent late-Romantic sound world. Perhaps as a nod to late-19th century maestros, the conductor used a baton for the Korngold.

Shaham likes to stand close to podium and conductor, somewhat inside the orchestra, creating a cohesive trio of collaborators. Magnified on the Bowl’s big hi-def screens, the violinist’s trademark grimaces belied how relaxed his body actually was, allowing him to produce a radiant tone. He was having a good time, and we were too.

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