Review:  Beethoven sounds a defiant tone at the Bowl

Bramwell Tovey conducted and L.A. Phil concertmaster Martin Chalifour soloed at the Bowl.

Bramwell Tovey conducted and L.A. Phil concertmaster Martin Chalifour soloed at the Bowl.

(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

We cannot escape Beethoven.

The San Francisco Symphony spent June with the composer and in August will release a recording of John Adams’ “Absolute Jest,” a concerto for string quartet and orchestra based on late Beethoven. Gustavo Dudamel begins the Los Angeles Philharmonic season in the fall with a Beethoven symphony cycle, and Simon Rattle will do the same with his Berlin Philharmonic.

This is thrilling but also worrisome. As a constant, Beethoven too easily becomes a background comfort. You can now choose to listen to Beethoven every moment of your life without lifting a finger, given that streaming offers effortless access.

ESSENTIAL ARTS & CULTURE NEWSLETTER >> Get great stories delivered to your inbox


On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played Beethoven at the Bowl, as it does every summer. The program was devoted to three of the composer’s most popular works from his most popular period, the middle of his career. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour was soloist in the Violin Concerto. Bramwell Tovey conducted the “Egmont” Overture and the Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”).

The evening was cool but not cold. Picnickers seemed content. They came and went pretty much as they liked. They listened or didn’t as they liked. Some chose their personal screens over the Bowl’s big ones.

Beethoven would not have been complacent. When a guitar-riff ringtone interrupted a quiet passage in the concerto, I had a vision of the irascible composer appearing out of nowhere and pulling a Patti LuPone, angrily grabbing the cellphone out the woman’s bag.

Unlike LuPone’s much-appreciated rebellious action, however, I suspect Beethoven would have angrily smashed the device rather than giving it back, as Lincoln Center Theater did.

I could also imagine the composer at the Bowl stationed with anti-aircraft weaponry aimed at helicopters, especially when one, in an affront to nature, rattled the Cahuenga Pass during the most delicate part of Chalifour’s cadenza in the first movement of the concerto.

Beethoven is, of course, not about contentment but insurrection and transformation. His music confronts urgent needs and strives for higher ideals, which is ultimately what brings us back to him time and again. The political message of the “Egmont” Overture, for instance, is an unflinchingly ferocious demand for democracy.

The Violin Concerto and the “Pastoral,” written two years apart, are Beethoven a bit more mellow. Still they take nothing for granted. The concerto shockingly demanded attention by opening with five taps on the timpani, a radical notion at the time. The “Pastoral,” an ode to the salubriousness of nature, is easily understood today as an environmental imperative.

Tovey spoke wittily and well about the symphony. In his introduction, he quipped that Beethoven’s idea of the country was not Bel-Air. He pointed out the notable instrumental oddities in the score that remind us of life’s unpredictability and that the poignant urgency in these works is that they miraculously disclose a beauty that the deaf composer couldn’t, himself, hear.

The performances went smoothly. Tovey’s Beethoven approach is middle of the road. He doesn’t force ideas on Beethoven but conducts as though he were opening valves or digging wells to let the music out. There is, to Tovey’s method, a sense of gracious acceptance for what is.

This made for a rewarding “Pastoral,” one that enthusiastically mimicked babbling brooks, bird song and thunderstorm. There were unusual instances of inner wind lines bursting forth in the middle movements. Whoever had the idea — balances can be the result of sound engineers or the conductor — it proved intriguing. At the end, Tovey gratefully officiated over what felt like a blessing to our Earth untouched.

Chalifour played the concerto almost as one of the orchestra, not as a flamboyant soloist needing to stamp every instance with ego. He brought a sophisticated sense of musical logic. Again, the intended balance between solo and orchestra cannot be fully known, but Chalifour avoided the notion that a classical concerto represented the individual against the masses, something that is prevalent in Beethoven performance.

Throughout, his clean tone and even-handed virtuosity put his instrument to the service of the orchestra at large. He might have chosen more modern cadenzas than the romantic ones by Fritz Kreisler, but he made them into moments for contemplation, a time to stop and think and listen.

Best of all, Chalifour stoically stood his ground to the helicopter. Short of bringing out a bazooka, he relied on defiant intensity to evoke the spirit of Beethoven as revolution.

Twitter: @markswed