Slatkin unfurls French masterworks at the Bowl


Late into the season, what does a week at Hollywood Bowl bring? Memories of big-boned, sweeping symphonies? Of long-built explosive climaxes? Of thundering musical monuments? No, to those.

But yes, to what guest conductor Leonard Slatkin and the L.A. Philharmonic delivered in their Ravel evening. Afterwards, how about having the tenderly misty strains of the "Mother Goose" Suite, followed by the glinting sensual silver of the "Daphnis and Chloe" Suite No. 2, branded in your brain for days and days? Spinning 'round and 'round on that imaginary turntable, despite all the more sensational works that came before and after.

The likeliest bet is that such textural delicacy will dissipate, and certainly not haunt us. What we've come to expect at the orchestra's summer home in Cahuenga Pass is big-muscled music with broadly stated themes. You know, the resounding stuff.

But there it was, the L. A. Philharmonic waxing luminous in the Ravel. And there he was, hometown hero Slatkin, back from musical wars around the country, finding both a lofty place via the French composer, and kindred musician spirits to commune with.

We never quite know the magic ingredients, besides the artistic ones -- climate conditions, sound engineers turning knobs and all other variables that affect outdoor music - but somehow they coalesced to a state of near-perfection here.

What's curious, though, is how the powerhouse piano/orchestra works that Slatkin and the band also dug into made less of an impression. For starters, there were two soloists: the veteran André Watts and the young Russian Olga Kern -- both of them keyboard firebrands who go for the literature's knuckle-busters. And if you think that they're not compelling, with the Bowl's cameras zooming in on their every cheek-muscle spasm, every elbow thrust skyward, guess again.

But listening to music needs a focused ear, not a captive eye, per se. And so, the big screens don't always do us such a favor. Especially in Watts' case, playing Liszt's 2nd Concerto.

Because here is a pianist who, even without a close-up capturing him, entertains us with his facial antics. To the point of laughter, I'm afraid. Just imagine what the Jumbotron adds: his fast-fluttering auctioneer lips with silent incantations of gibberish that never stop; meanwhile his physicality at the keyboard -- those big hands that grabbed up fistfuls of notes and unleashed percussive might -- were a thrill. In a concert hall, without a camera? Okay, if you like his brand of pianism. Here, a severe compromise.

olga-kern-baez.jpgKern, on the other hand, didn't put on that kind of show. Although the tall, gorgeous blonde came close histrionically several years ago when she then, also, took up Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" at Royce Hall with the touring National Philharmonic of Russia. She was more assured earlier (better rehearsed, having played it countless times with the same orchestra and conductor). Here, her approach to it seemed broken down, section by percussive section, with some sound lapses between -- until, of course, she got to the big, dreamy, all-encompassing ultra-romantic theme. It always scores.

Lesson learned: Mammoth amphitheatres can sometimes win with the most intricately spun music and fall behind in blockbusters.

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