Walt Disney Concert Hall looked almost full Thursday night, suggesting that some of Bramwell Tovey's loyal Hollywood Bowl following may have followed him to downtown L.A. for his gig there with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The irrepressible Tovey didn't disappoint those who await his witty remarks, offering some as a prologue to Act 2 of Tchaikovsky's "The Sleeping Beauty" after intermission. He spoke of the Tchaikovsky as the vehicle for one of his earliest conducting experiences: "Me and 45 ballerinas — someone had to do it!" (Rim shot.)
But there was also musical wit on display — at last, a performance of selections from William Walton's "Facade." This was Walton's breakthrough piece, written in 1922 at age 19 to accompany the nonsense poems of Edith Sitwell, who recited them in a rhythmic style that was a precursor of rap.
Walton himself conducted the first L.A. Phil performance of music from "Facade" in 1953, but it is rarely performed in concert these days, whether in the original voice-chamber-group version or the orchestral suites. I cannot explain why we don't hear this music more often. It's a jazzy, sassy, tuneful romp that is pure fun for audiences and a far cry from the Walton who later became a distinguished musical pillar of the fading British Empire.
Tovey programmed the Suite No. 2, which contains only six of the 21 selections in what is now called "Facade 1." Within these 11 minutes, Tovey invoked boisterous rhythms, a delicate lilt, a little of the old soft-shoe, and plenty of satirical spirit to the manner born. Let's hear some more of it sometime.
The stylish violinist Ray Chen, last seen playing at the Musco Center in Orange in November with three friends from the Berlin Philharmonic, returned to the Southland for his Disney Hall debut in the Sibelius Violin Concerto — and he came to impress. He arched his back, knees bent, and poured forth plenty of warm, passionate tone, grabbing a hold of the long line toward the climax of the second movement and not letting go until he reached the top.
Overall, though, the Sibelius concerto thrives on a paradoxical combination of fire and ice, and Chen could provide enough fire but hardly any ice. Nor was there much darkness or propulsion in Tovey's shaping of the orchestral components, and the timpani completely blotted out the crucial thrumming string rhythm in the finale. Yet Chen's outgoing personality and flair could not be denied, both in Sibelius and his encore, Paganini's Caprice No. 21.
Tchaikovsky's "The Sleeping Beauty" is another example of music that isn't performed as often as one might guess — at least in the concert hall as opposed to the ballet stage. Yet Act 2 makes a perfectly good alternative to the usual overplayed Tchaikovsky symphonies; the level of inspiration is generally high, with trace elements of his Symphonies 4 and 5 and Violin Concerto turning up. Tovey and the Phil served it up luxuriously, with excellent solo contributions from concertmaster Martin Chalifour and principal cellist Robert deMaine.
L.A. Phil with Bramwell Tovey and Ray Chen
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Info: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com
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