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These summer nights at Hollywood Bowl

If you're thinking that nearly all city roads lead to Hollywood Bowl for summertime symphonic music, you're right. And especially in these long, hot, dog days.

Every July to September the LA Philharmonic decamps from Disney Hall to the mammoth showplace up Cahuenga Pass where alfresco pleasures abound, where picnickers delight amid the newly landscaped random spots for spreading their feasts and where trendy food services are at their elbow granting every culinary wish.

mirga-square.jpgCall it a summertime monopoly, this amphitheater (capacity 18,000), this lure to a mass demographic for almost any music an orchestra might play. No it's not an oasis for elites -- many attendees have never set foot in a concert hall.

So call it the people's place. And these days, it's highlighted by ever-present screens catching the music-making onstage. Yes, jumbotrons or giant videos are stationed at all levels from boxes to benches -- not to mention cell-phone pictures being peered at by your audience neighbors.

Take one recent concert, for instance. It featured the Philharmonic's newly-named assistant conductor, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, the young Lithuanian who looks like a female version of Esa-Pekka Salonen when he first arrived here. She's making international hay these days. (Yes, it helps to be a glamorous beauty, for both soloists and baton-wielders.) With her -- adding up to an all-female event -- was Russian-born violinist Alexandra Soumm, also a twenty-something.

Together, they delivered the evening's gem, Leonard Bernstein's Serenade. And what we got was an irresistible account of this undeservedly neglected work. If I could grant Lenny what many believe was his fondest wish -- a composer name as revered as Mahler's -- this piece would qualify him.

Does it brim with delectable waltz passages? Is it warmly lilting in the modern Mitteleuropa way? Are there definitions of soulful characters, the kind that suggest theatrical value? And sentiments of quiet sorrow? Yes, to all, and it's wonderfully constructed, including its jazzy coda, à la "West Side Story"-- with a total impact that wipes out any need for a namesake, such as Plato's dialogue.

Soumm seemed to be reading Bernstein's mind, so infinitely expressive and nuanced was her playing. Happily, the cameras stayed on her. And Mirga (let's call her that, although if you want to learn to pronounce her full name try it this way: Mear-Ga-Gra-chin-tee-eh Tee-La), got the orchestra to sound as if it had more than one rehearsal.

After intermission we saw camera work at its worst. Like painting by the numbers, the big screen zeroed in on a lone timpanist while what was being heard in Rodion Shchedrin's "Carmen Suite" was a tutti, full string complement and timpani.

This is the point when eyes must look away from the screen, in order to not be distracted from the unified sound by the sight of a single instrument. What a travesty these rote camera designations are.

Not to mention the loss of conductor focus -- long shots of Grazinyte-Tyla, rarely close-ups, were the picturesque kind, with her bare arms, unsinewy and fluttery, giving a less-than-forceful shoulder heft to her ministrations. It's a pity that cameras linger on rows of violinists sitting back in their chairs, eyes on scores, sawing away, etc., instead of longer stays on the conductor who actually telegraphs what the music is saying.

But the program was an oddity. Besides the unfamiliar Bernstein, it boasted a treatment of Bizet's opera that seemed popsy here compared to its dimension as tragedy when danced by the late Bolshoi ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, a famously Jewish Russian star, for whom her husband Shchedrin, composed this ballet version.

In fact, some in the Bowl audience thought it was a sing-along -- for the "Toreador Song" especially.

Its origins as a two-item bill, though, an esoteric design built around scoring for strings and percussion, came from violinist Gidon Kremer, who, not surprisingly, chose Grazinyte-Tyla last year to lead his touring Kremerata Baltica in the program. (Normally he both conducts and plays, but is there a beauteous young thing Kremer has not recruited to his ever-engaging musical adventures?)

Weeks earlier at the Bowl we had Gustavo Dudamel back in town for a bit of mid-summer Mendelssohn. There was the Violin Concerto which Gil Shaham delivered with fine delicacy, all the attenuated lines made to shimmer. Even in the perky, up-tempo passages he held to scale, eschewing a more robust tone.

The same sense of awe came to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with Dudamel coaxing the orchestra to a state of Mendelssohnian wonder, along with visuals above the shell conjuring Shakespeare's enchanted forest. The terrific singers, Jennifer Holloway and Deanna Breiwick, and theatrical narrator Bryce Dallas Howard were a boon to the camera department.

yuja2.jpgSo was Yuja Wang ready again for her close-up, returning to open the 2015 summer season. Remember her? The Chinese pianist -- that petite, fashion-hip, whiz-bang dynamo whose Bowl debut photo went viral several years ago? You know, the one with the hair flying, the teeny orange bandage dress stretching from way below the shoulders to high up the thigh, the spike heels pumping the pedals -- commanding the keyboard in impossibly difficult music that can defeat big men.

Well, here she was once more -- along with Lionel Bringuier, the Philharmonic's previous assistant conductor. An enormous turnout greeted them, filling seats up to and including the last benches.

They did not disappoint. This time Wang plunged into Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, tossing off the knuckle-buster with wonted aplomb, as fleet and agile as ever, powerful in the dense octaves, the heavy percussion.

Bringuier brought the band into perfect sync with her and went on to illuminate Debussy's "La Mer" with vivid colors, high drama and excitement but not with the degree of subterranean mystery often found in those waters.

Top photo of Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla by Vern Evans/LA Phil.


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