bowlopener

Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, especially purists. The Hollywood Bowl has become, in the last few years, a rather good place to hear classical music. Improvements in the sound system and those giant screens with HD images of the performers close up (some pretty solid camerawork, too) have combined to make the experience of hearing a concert there, to use a buzz word, more immersive than ever before.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that the resident music director, one Gustavo Dudamel, seems to take a keen interest in conducting at the historic venue, no snob he. (He’s in good company; Bruno Walter loved the Bowl too.) The repertoire might be Classical Music 101 a great deal of the time (as it was Tuesday), but then the Los Angeles Philharmonic tends not to play a lot of this stuff in Disney Hall these days.

Dudamel will conduct quite a bit at the Bowl this summer (he is more active at the venue than any music director since Zubin Mehta), and will take on such demanding works as “West Side Story” and “Tosca.” On this night he may have been able to conduct the music — Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” — in his sleep, but didn’t.

Certainly the soloist in the Tchaikovsky, the superstar pianist Lang Lang, required conductor and orchestra to remain on their toes, what with his constant varying of tempo and whiplash-inducing interpretation of contrasts. Say what you will about Lang Lang but he is an entertainer. He seems to be able to do whatever he wants at the keyboard, and usually does.

What he wants is questionable in taste and self-indulgent. It seeks (and finds) effect over expression. Lang Lang’s Tchaikovsky consisted of a series of acrobatic feats and flowery poeticisms in distinct compartments, few of them connected. His thundering octaves were so fast as to be comical, like Keystone Cops tumbling down stairs. His more sensitive moments drew attention to his prowess as a colorist and shader and taffy-puller, the longer line be damned.

In the end, it was fascinating to hear and kind of annoying at the same time, bearing but little resemblance to Tchaikovsky. One remained unmoved and unexcited. The close-ups of the swooning pianist on the big screen didn’t help matters. Meanwhile, Dudamel and the orchestra kept pace without much fuss, and provided a warm and long-spanned lyricism of their own.

After intermission, “Scheherazade.” The Bowl’s sound system is by no means perfection, and there were times in this brilliantly orchestrated work when one regretted we were not in the acoustical confines of Disney Hall. The string sound en masse lacks that plushness you can get indoors; and tuttis tend to blur and turn steely at the same time. Still, a large amount of the musical information is transmitted unobjectionably enough, with little distortion. You don’t find yourself thinking about the sound quality as much as you used to, and that allows for greater concentration on the music itself.

Dudamel’s reading of the work could have been in reaction to Lang Lang. It was simple and steady and without show. It inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. The first movement unwound with an almost Wagnerian breadth, without the heaviness. In the other three movements, he seemed never to push the more dazzling and virtuosic elements of the score, and one may have wished he would have here and there. But overall, there was an affectionate and amicable and unhurried feeling to the reading that was hard to resist.

In this inviting atmosphere created by the conductor, the orchestra flourished and played generously and fluently. The soloists had a wonderful night — among them concertmaster Martin Chalifour, new principal clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan, oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk and bassoonist Shawn Mouser. It was notable, also, how smoothly the conductor and orchestra moved through the many tempo transitions in this piece — as one, and easily.

Some 12,000 listeners slowed down for an evening and took it all in, not a bad haul for culture in an uncultured world. All of which is to say, in a rather circuitous way, that the opening of the L.A. Phil’s 95th classical season at the Bowl proved enjoyable to this listener in almost every way except the getting there.

***

  • Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • With: Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Lang Lang, piano
  • Where: Hollywood Bowl
  • When: July 12
  • Next: 8 p.m. tonight Dudamel conducts “West Side Story.”
  • Online: hollywoodbowl.com
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