Review: Beethoven's Ninth a joy as L.A. Phil's Hollywood Bowl opener

This post has been updated.

Opening the Los Angeles Philharmonic's summer season at the Hollywood Bowl with Beethoven's big Ninth Symphony on Tuesday night, the conductor Leonard Slatkin told the audience that this hallowed score, a symphonic overcoming of suffering, is an almost annual event in the amphitheater.

In fact, it's more a special occasion. Its performance at the Bowl three years ago is a hard act to follow. That was Gustavo Dudamel's media-frenzied free concert that began his L.A. Phil music directorship and gave a whole new meaning to the "Ode to Joy" that famously ends the symphony.

But in building a program around Beethoven's Ninth, Slatkin (who is also in town for Thursday's program) had a few tricks of his own up his sleeve. When he had been the orchestra's principal guest conductor at the Bowl from 2006 to '09, he subtly altered the tone of the L.A. Phil programs by introducing a modicum of modern music and toying with video. Slatkin, too, teased something new out of the "Ode to Joy."

In the ode, the German poet Friedrich Schiller venerates the "daughter of Elysium," and Slatkin gave women a voice by devoting the first half of the program to short works by three contemporary female composers. And for the actual Finale to Beethoven's Ninth, the "Ode to Joy" was accompanied by a video created for the occasion by multimedia artist Herman Kolgen in which leaves and vines pop out of pavement. More about that later.

Not all women composers like to be identified by gender, but this was an inspired bit of programming. Getting an audience to turn from its picnics to music on a warm evening is an ever-growing challenge these days. The female composers piqued curiosity. Their music, moreover, was intriguingly good.

Anna Clyne, who was born in 1980, was one of the young composers included onEsa-Pekka Salonen's last Green Umbrella concert three years ago and is now a composer in residence for the Chicago Symphony. She has many styles, from moodily introspective to more rowdy. Her lively and inventive "Rewind," which opened Slatkin's program, is an early piece from 2005 for orchestra and tape that begins in aggressive forward-motion Minimalism and then turns around and goes backward into a realm of mystery. It makes a wonderful sound.

Anne LeBaron's "American Icons" — a fanfare commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Kennedy Center in Washington and premiered in 1996 when Slatkin was music director of the National Symphony — is a four-minute musical firecracker of hepped-up fragments of '50s pop music bashing heads. An organ blasts through it, Hammond-like. It's a riot, and as happily far from Beethoven as you could possibly imagine.

The last piece was "Tempus Fugit," by Cindy McTee. The percussion section is featured. Clocks tick and they, too, are turned back to the jazzy '50s. Exuberant music that Slatkin conducted as an ode to joy, as well he might. McTee is his new bride.

Slatkin's Beethoven Ninth, which he conducted without a score, was straightforward and upbeat, not mystical. The Scherzo had rhythmic energy and an almost American beat, which worked. The Adagio was neither slow nor spiritual, but lyrical and lovely. The performance became stronger in the Finale, which featured soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cook, tenor Gordon Gietz and bass Christian van Horn, along with the vibrant Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Kolgen's video accompanied the vocalist and took attention away from them. A co-commission by the L.A. Phil and the J. Paul Getty Museum, it was meant to connect this performance with the current exhibition of Gustav Klimt drawings at the Getty. Beethoven's Ninth was an important influence on the Viennese artist's work a century ago, and in a Beethoven frieze he made his own epic journey to joy, adding some nice erotic touches along the way.

For all its surreal imagery, Kolgen's video was oddly literal, wrapping first a parking meter and ultimately all of downtown L.A. in rampantly unstoppable foliage as a symbol of the greening dawn of a new day. This alternated with animated spindly line drawings. Everything pulsed with the music, amplifying Beethoven, or you might say, gilding the lily.

In fact, Beethoven was already plenty amplified by the Bowl's loudspeakers. Treble and bass both seemed turned up to the max. Strings sizzled and crackled. At the end of the symphony a piccolo became deliriously emphatic in the mix. But the summer has just started. The sound system usually settles down as the days become shorter.


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