OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Tovey conducts Bernstein, Gershwin at the Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic: Bernstein and Gershwin
Branwell Tovey, pianist and conductor; Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocalist
Thursday, July 10 • Hollywood Bowl
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Leonard Bernstein, Gershwin, Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic — four names inextricably linked with Hollywood Bowl — combined for an occasionally quirky but ultimately satisfying concert last night at the Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre. The pairing was certainly popular: 11,875 people showed up, 4,155 more than attended Tuesday night’s classical-season opener of this, the 93rd season at the famed outdoor venue.

The Phil apparently can’t decide how to describe its relationship with Tovey, the British-born composer-conductor-pianist who turns 61 today (which also happens to be the 77th anniversary of Gershwin’s untimely death). Although none of the preconcert media releases list any local title for Tovey (since 2000 he has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony), the printed program continues to list him as Principal Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. Whatever; he’s a welcome presence. With his conducting skills and erudite comedy that last night played to and off of the audience, various orchestra members and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, Tovey remains the pinnacle of outdoor maestros both for his musical and raconteur skills.

Last night he showed off another of his many facets by doubling as pianist and conductor in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Most people who attempt this dual role remove the piano lid and shove the piano into the middle of the orchestra (over the conductor’s podium, in effect). Tovey, instead, placed the piano in its usual concert position with the lid raised to its full extension, which meant that a goodly number of players couldn’t see Tovey while he was playing.

Tovey solved this problem (sort of) by beginning the introduction — with Michele Zukovsky’s slinky, sumptuous clarinet solo — on the podium and then sitting down to play. The orchestra had a tendency to bog down a bit until Tovey would get off the bench and whip the tempo back to what he considered acceptable. It was all a bit disconcerting. Considering that Tovey doesn’t make his living as a pianist, he was remarkably dexterous in the solo portions, although the performance certainly wasn’t note-perfect. The audience had a good time; they gave Tovey and the orchestra a thunderous ovation at the end.

Prior to Rhapsody in Blue, Tovey and Co. offered a fiery rendition of Bernstein’s Candide Overture and four pieces from the 1944 musical On the Town. The three-movement orchestral suite from the musical was notable for, among other things, melancholy solos by James Wilt on trumpet and Carolyn Hove on English horn in the second movement and the car-horn effect in the first movement, appropriate since Gershwin’s An American in Paris was the concert finale.

Following the suite, Alysha Umphress and Jay Armstrong Johnson raced onstage to perform the saucy I Can Cook, Too as a plug for a Broadway revival this fall at New York City’s Lyric Theatre. Of a review of the 2013 production in Vermont, New York Times critic Ben Brantlee wrote: “John Rando’s production of On The Town … is one of those rare revivals that remind us what a hit show from long was originally all about. The joy of Mr. Rando’s production is in its air of erotic effortlessness.” It would be hard to term last night’s “tease” as “effortless” but “erotic” it certainly was; this number (for which Bernstein wrote the lyrics) must have ruffled more than a few feathers in 1944.

After intermission, Bridgewater joined Tovey (at the piano) and the orchestra for arrangements of four Gershwin songs that Tovey orchestrated in 2000. Whether she genuinely had a brain cramp that left her totally clueless as how to begin A Foggy Day in London Town or was grinding through a grossly overdone shtick between her and Tovey, Bridgewater’s breathy renditions of Foggy Day, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away From Me and Fascinating Rhythm gave little, if any, sense of Gershwin’s genius in this genre.

There’s no programming genius required to conclude this kind of concert with An American in Paris, but Tovey’s humorous introduction (one wonders how a felt hat draped over a trumpet bell really affects the sound) led to a solid, forthright performance of this Bowl and L.A. Phil staple, which sent everyone home happy.

Bernstein, Gershwin, Tovey and the L.A. Phil under a full moon and basking in delightfully cool evening temperatures — this is why people keep coming back year after year.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The brightest sign of the $2.8 million renovations to the Bowl this year this is the addition of new Alaskan cedar benches, which replaced ones that had been in use since 1982. “Over time,” writes Ross Guiney, LA County Department of Parks and Recreation Director, “the wood will naturally weather in the beautiful silvery-gray color with which Bowl-goers are familiar.”
• C+ to the camera operators, who weren’t always on cue with which orchestra player was being featured in a solo lick. On the other hand, the color quality was superb and the sound system has become first-rate.
• On Tuesday, conductor James Gaffigan leads the Phil in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Behzod Abduraimov, who is making both his Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl debuts, as soloist in the concert. They replace Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yefim Bronfman, who were originally scheduled to perform. Salonen, former LA Phil music director and now conductor laureate, cancelled “due to unforeseen personal reasons,” says the Phil announcement, while Bronfman is bowing out “due to the unavoidable scheduling of a minor medical procedure.” (LINK)
• Next Thursday, Salonen will return to the Bowl for the first time since 2009, conducting first piano concertos and first symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Yuja Wang will be the piano soloist in both concertos; joining her for the Shostakovich will be LAPO Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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