Nicholas McGegan began his annual late-summer week at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night with a program billed as "The French Connection" — not the movie, of course, but a lineup that went through a few contortions to establish a Gallic thread.
So in addition to two genuine French composers, Saint-Saens and Ibert, we could contemplate two Austrian compositions, Mozart's Symphony No. 31 — which he wrote during a six-month Paris residency — and one of Haydn's "Paris" symphonies, No. 85, which bears the Queen Marie Antoinette-inspired nickname, "La Reine."
The evening was to have been a showcase for the flamboyantly serious organist Cameron Carpenter, who would have played Poulenc's Organ Concerto and some unspecified solo pieces. Last month, though, it was announced that Carpenter was "forced" to cancel with the ominous explanation: "due to complications in transporting the International Touring Organ (Carpenter's custom-made digital instrument) arising from errors made by his management."
Into the breach went the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1, with the 21-year-old French cellist Edgar Moreau making his Bowl debut.
All right, things didn't go as originally planned, and the warm, humid weather was more Tanglewood than Southern California. But it was still a satisfying evening of music, however brief — only an hour of music, total.
McGegan was his usual enlivening, effervescent, engaging self, spreading good cheer with his wiggle-waggle motions on the podium visible to all on the giant video screens. The Mozart and Haydn symphonies — both of succinct, nearly equal length, neither overly familiar to concert audiences — went by with zesty tempos, robust textures, contrasting shadings and high spirits from the chamber-orchestra-sized version of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. No late-summer doldrums here.
Moreau, whose career was launched at 17 when he won Second Prize at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, constructed an unusual arc in the Saint-Saens, beginning with a smooth, relaxed, unimposing rendition of the opening theme, saving his passion and energy for the stretch run.
His intonation was pretty good, he didn't force his tone and McGegan applied a nicely delicate touch to the orchestral part in the central section.
The rare Ibert selection was "Hommage à Mozart," a five-minute piece written in 1956 for the Mozart Bicentennial, completely out of time with the trends of that year and none the worse for it. It's a jolly, neo-classical lark that sort of sounds like Mozart in spots, but not really; Ibert's personal stamp is still predominant.
As such, it was perfectly suited to McGegan's own personality; he rattled through it with a big smile, seemingly unperturbed by some nasty helicopter traffic that threatened to blot it out.