Review: It’s an old-school night at the Hollywood Bowl with Stravinsky and Joshua Bell

Music Critic

After a week of Gustavo Dudamel’s imaginative programming that featured living, breathing composers — Daníel Bjarnason and John Adams — taking bows, the Los Angeles Philharmonic returned to what might be called heirloom Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night.

A hot day bequeathed the kind of clement, warm evening that the Bowl advertises but can’t always deliver. A popular violinist played a virtuoso chestnut, Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole,” more in fashion in the days when folks still dressed to go the Bowl, lighted up cigarettes rather then cellphones and brought servants to unpack picnics. Bramwell Tovey conducted Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” for which there is also heirloom-able Hollywood Bowl history.

In August 1944, four years after his Bowl debut, Stravinsky conducted a performance of the ballet to accompany a full production that featured a young new dancer, Jerome Robbins, in the title role. Exactly two weeks later and the day after Leonard Bernstein’s 26th birthday, Bernstein made his L.A. Phil debut at the Bowl conducting Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” with what The Times at the time felt had the angularity Stravinsky intended but not the rich tonal beauty or exact pitch.


For his part, Tovey valued rich tonal beauty over angularity. A former conductor for London’s Royal Ballet, he is well experienced in handling a danceable “Petrushka,” although his tempos here would have been on the rushed side for that. He nicely captured the lavish atmosphere and the quirky rhythmic character of Stravinsky’s early score. He made its tricky rhythmic bits flow with admirable naturalism and allowed eccentric instrumental solos — that characterize the main puppet characters as well as oddball stage and audience antics at a Russian fair — fly by with spectacular ease.

Tovey also introduced the performance by amusingly summarizing the ballet’s plot. In a talk at the Bowl’s once fashionable Tea House shortly before the 1944 “Petrushka,” however, the famed French pedagogue and most loyal of Stravinsky devotees, Nadia Boulanger, stubbornly warned her audience against becoming so concerned with identifying the story that it won’t hear music.

The formidable Boulanger (who once slapped a noted musicologist at a party at Mills College in Oakland for not properly appreciating a mature blue cheese she had smuggled into the country from France) would surely have was been horrified by the applause, just before the end of this pleasingly plot-driven performance, for a percussionist dropping a tambourine on a table, which is the way Stravinsky indicates the death of Petrushka. Tovey had alerted the crowd to the effect beforehand, lest anyone think that the new L.A. Phil principal percussionist, Matthew Howard, had screwed up. With that kind of charming welcome, Howard, I suspect, is going to like it here.

With appearances with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Pacific Symphony in coming weeks, Bell clearly likes it here a lot, and Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole” also found the 49-year-old violinist looking back. It is the first concerto he learned, at age 11, and he has been playing it all summer (including with the San Francisco Symphony and with the Royal Philharmonic at the London Proms).

More than looking back, Bell returns the 19th century showpiece, with its ingratiating Spanish-French character, to the 1980s. The style then was to clean up a score that had been romanticized by such greats as Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. That didn’t work, and “Symphonie Espagnole” soon went out of fashion.

The French are starting to bring it back with a much more extensive restoration process, playing Lalo with clarifying early instruments. The old school is also returning to fashion, with fabulous sounding newly refurbished Menuhin and Heifetz recordings.

In contrast, Bell’s middle ground feels a little dated, not that there isn’t yet another fad for restoring early ’80s knickknacks. He tossed off the most difficult passages with admirable ease. He played expressive lyric melodies with creamy ease. If his pyrotechnics can seem generic, so what? Fireworks are another Bowl tradition.

There haven’t been as many physical ones bursting above the Cahuenga Pass this summer as there used to be. But Tovey did begin the program with a dazzling performance of Stravinsky’s five-minute “Fireworks.”


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