Tovey, L.A. Phil Probe Depths Of The Russian Soul

Bramwell Tovey
Los Angeles Times

By Rick Schultz

British-born Bramwell Tovey opened his final concert this season as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl with a knockout reading of "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- but that tune was written by a Brit. The question that remained to be answered Thursday was whether he could channel a Russian soul for a night of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff.

In the curtain-raiser, Tchaikovsky's rousing "Festival Coronation March," Tovey emphasized the piece's supersized brass band sound within the larger orchestra. This is not great music, but it made for bracing outdoor listening.

And lesser Tchaikovsky proved an appropriate lead-in to Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1, a student work about which Leonard Bernstein once commented that it's "not a good piece . . . its one real tune is worked to death."

The late maestro's critique aside, Prokofiev's concerto delivered snap and verve, not least because it introduced 19-year-old French pianist Lise de la Salle to the Bowl. According to Tovey, this was also her first visit to the West Coast.

It was a promising debut. Though the Prokofiev offers some repose in its central Andante, it isn't the best vehicle to display a pianist's lyrical and expressive capabilities. Instead, it challenges a soloist's rhythmic chops and stamina.

On a U.S. tour in 1937, Prokofiev played the piece at such a blistering pace, a critic noted that the Denver Symphony's conductor had to work "like a Volga boatman" to keep up. Tovey and the Phil, by contrast, had no trouble keeping up with De la Salle and offered richly hued support.

Her taste and rhythmic elasticity kept the velocity of her performance from becoming percussive or flashy. This was not a faceless technician at work. Indeed, had it not been for lingering memories of Simon Trpceski's even more commanding performance of the work last March with Gustavo Dudamel and the Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall, one might have been inclined to cheer even louder.

Thursday, Tovey kept the jokes to a minimum and relied on his gift for translating complicated music into words for the Bowl audience. He was especially eloquent on Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, which he then offered in a spacious, fresh and unsentimental reading. Conductors have made drastic cuts in this long, some say overlong, score. Not Tovey, who performed it with every note and repeat in place.

The resulting performance thrilled the audience of 7,094. There was hardly a clap between movements. Tovey took his time with the melodically generous work, conveying its romantic warmth.

Many soloists took poetic turns, including Lorin Levee in the Adagio's lovely clarinet part. Even David Howard's bass clarinet made a memorable contribution. Like Tovey, he sounded the melancholy depths of the Russian soul.