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The British conductor is simpatico not only with the Philharmonic but also with material by Elgar and Britten.

Bramwell Tovey
Los Angeles Times

By Richard S. Ginell

Prior to this past weekend, the only place where one could catch Bramwell Tovey in action with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was the Hollywood Bowl, with its capricious sound, long-distance views and populist programming.

Yet even there, one could tell that this late-blooming British conductor had an excellent rapport with this orchestra — and his appearance within the closer, friendlier acoustical space of the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night clinched the deal. Although this time he didn't speak to the audience in his witty, illuminating way, Tovey continued to get the Philharmonic to play with enthusiasm and precision.

There is something to the cliché that musicians can be expected to bring a special quality to the music of their countrymen. One example that I can cite is that you've never really heard Elgar's "Enigma" Variations until you've heard it played by a British orchestra with a British conductor on British soil. They do bring a uniquely nationalistic fervor to it, most predictably in the expansive, eloquent "Nimrod" variation.

Yet Tovey's performance with this American orchestra might have been the next best thing to that. Working without a score, Tovey brought out all kinds of lovingly shaped, elastic, expressive turns of phrases and subtle shadings that indicated real intimacy and affection. He rampaged exuberantly through the rambunctious variations and pounded out the flag-waving finale with the powerful bass reinforcement of Disney Hall's pipe organ. And after an elegantly grand rendition of "Nimrod," Tovey inserted a long pause as if to let it sink in awhile before moving on.

The conductor also brought some personal qualities to the "Four Sea Interludes" from Britten's opera "Peter Grimes," slowly conjuring the rippling motions and atmosphere of "Dawn," giving the violin swirls within "Sunday Morning" an extra thrust, laying bare the details within the "Storm" episode. Yet overall there was more emphasis upon the brightly colored, splashy showpiece elements of this music than the darkness lurking within.

Though obviously scheduled long in advance, the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 became, in effect, a timely, unofficial memorial to Mstislav Rostropovich (who died last month), to whom the concerto was dedicated. Of all the pieces that Rostropovich brought into the repertoire, this one may have been the most important — and the Philharmonic's Peter Stumpf seemed to evade Slava's huge shadow with his lighter, pliable tone quality, identifying most strongly with the lyricism in the second movement, keeping the angst at arm's length. For his part, Tovey made much of the mischievous mockery in the first movement, while providing a sensitive accompaniment at all times.