August 20, 2008 at 8:19 PMCan I bring you to the Hollywood Bowl for a moment? Because on Tuesday night I heard not only some fine French music played by violinist Joshua Bell, but also probably the best live Petrushka that has ever fallen on my ears, with Bramwell Tovey conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Bowl.
But first, let's set the stage. Imagine perfect weather. This is Los Angeles, here. Not to brag. Then imagine a pink sky, at dusk, and a spiffy orchestra warming up under a clean white arch. The audience stretches up a Hollywood hillside, with much of it organized into terraced cubicles for eating dinner. People sit in on green canvas lawn chairs, with little foldout tables on which they've placed wine bottles and glasses, colored table cloths, cheese and grapes, food from baskets, Tupperware and tins. They chat and giggle and generally get rather squirrelly as they drain those bottles.
The sunset brings mild chill, and as darkness falls I look at my $1 program and think, what could be more tiresome than a Berlioz March? Because the rest of the program looks great. We stand for the U.S. National Anthem, and I'm happy to report that people were actually singing. Yes! I've always wondered, when I'm playing this before a concert, if the audience members really sing. They do.
The Hollywood Bowl seats some 18,000 patrons, thus for everyone to see the action, it requires not only two large video screens that flank the stage, but also other sets of screens higher up, for those in back. To me, the Berlioz seemed rather amplified and distant, and I had to remind myself to watch the real orchestra and not just stare at the T.V. screen. It reminded me of my thoughts on the live "Shamu" show at SeaWorld: Don't just watch the screen, people, there's a real live killer whale here! The LA Phil is a real, live, killer orchestra: Watch! And yet those screens do help illustrate the finer details of what the orchestra is doing.
So the Berlioz had not arrested anyone's attention, certainly not mine, and violinist Joshua Bell emerged on the stage to much applause but also still to much chair scraping, chattering, clanking of dinnerware and giggling.
That was until that first spellbinding utterance from Bell's Stradivarius, in Ernest Chausson's "Poéme." Suddenly the audience quieted; the only extra noise came from the singing crickets on the hillside. If the performance had until this moment seemed like a distant concert on a screen, it now felt live, with Bell to focus it. What makes for a world-class soloist? It's this ability to grab people with your sound and hold them rapt.
The Chausson "Poéme" is a piece with an amorphous beginning in the orchestra, which slowly swirls around itself, until the solo violin takes over. It's a rather exposed beginning for the soloist, but I imagine that with the Gibson ex Huberman Strad, one might not feel alone. Bell has Strad sound, and he's not afraid to use it in all its glorious range, from the laid-bare intimacy of the Poéme's introduction, to a mounting series of double stops that flows into the all-out emotional wailing at the center of this piece.
You might say yeah, if I had a Strad I could play like that. But not so. It's the other way around. If you were driven your whole life to play like that, then you might recognize your voice in that Strad and bank your whole existence on buying it, like he did. He may be a violin superstar, but I'm still guessing that $4 million put a dent in his wallet.
The close-cropped TV images of Bell emphasized his considerable movement during performing; and they also allowed for a peek at technique, which I enjoyed especially during Saint-Saëns' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," a piece written in 1863 and dedicated to the technical wizard, Pablo de Sarasate. I noticed that Bell does indeed use a shoulder rest, but he by no means clenches with the neck; very often his head is far back and the fiddle is completely cradled by the left hand. His chinrest is right in the middle, over the tailpiece.
A few notes on the Intro and Rondo Capriccioso: I enjoyed the LA Phil's ability to spin on a dime and not just allow Bell whatever rubato he needed, but to actually keep with him. I've heard many recordings of this piece in which the soloist and orchestra were considerably out-of-sync. Not live performances, recordings! So here's to conductor Bramwell Tovey for sensitive accompaniment.
And let's just take a moment to appreciate high technique done well. There were many places, but I'll just illustrate one: There's a spot where the violin plateaus for a few spikey moments on a high E harmonic, then descends with a spiccato glissando that turns into a fingered chromatic scale all the way down to a low E, then zooms up like a roller coaster, back on track to the melody. I love this part. And I hate it, it's so hard to do right. A perfectly timed slide in the left hand, with a bow that bounces uniformly on three strings in succession. Many mortals fudge a bit here, pretty much no one will notice. But basically I heard every separate note in that chromatic descent when Bell played it. There are NBA players who will miss the occasional free-throw, but not, say, Reggie Miller. That kind of tidiness is the artists' moral code.
By the lightning-paced end of the Saint-Saëns, Bell had worked up a considerable sweat, but he bowed to persistent applause by the audience and granted us an encore.
"It's great to play with my friends here in the LA Philharmonic," Bell said, and introducing his encore, a piece from John Corigliano's film score from The Red Violin, he quipped, "I'm sure there's no one here in the film business..." Bell played the encore a-cappella: an impressive and showy bit with much wicked-looking barriolage, for which his entire body dove into it. It ended with a high flourish followed by a well-timed, declamatory pluck, like a great period at the end. Spot on!
And now for those of you who are still awake and are not going to leave the concert at intermission just because Josh Bell has finished playing, I'd like to describe for you a very fine performance of Stravinsky's Petrushka.
Conductor Bramwell Tovey started the second half of the concert with a delightful five-minute primer on Petrushka; I've never heard a more concise explanation of the piece.
"This piece is 96 years old; some of you might have been at the first performance," Tovey began with a smile. "It began its life as a piano concerto." When the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev heard the piece, he thought it might make a good ballet, and thus Stravinsky set about orchestrating it.
A drum roll marks the changing of every scene in the ballet. "You've heard the expression, every time the drums stop, you hear the violas," he said, apparently not resisting the common urge to make a viola joke. ;-) "Well it's really the case here."
The first scene is at a carnival and involves mayhem, drunks being thrown out of bars and general chaos. "You know when you go to Disneyland and you hear too much music from too many sources?" Tovey explained. That kind of thing.
A magician appears with three puppets, which wind up being our main characters: a beautiful ballerina, and the two puppets that fight over her: a Moor and Petrushka. Petrushka is "a rather pathetic ragdoll," Tovey said. "He's the most human of the three, which is why probably he's the most pathetic."
The ballerina and Petrushka get along well until the Moor comes along and, peacock-like, asserts his masculinity. Throughout, Stravinsky throws in all kinds of dances, "There's even a dance for wet nurses" Tovey said. The wet nurses dance with the coachmen, with squealing violins depicting bottom-pinching: "There is some rather salacious activity going on here," Tovey said. In the end, Petrushka is defeated and killed, his fall depicted by a drummer dropping a tambourine on a table. A beefy policemen comes to make sure everything is okay and is persuaded that Petrushka is just a doll. Later, the ghost of Petrushka appears, screaming and mocking the magician.
"You might say, 'What a strange story!' and you'd be right. But it was a strange time, before the world wars," Tovey said. "By the way, we're going to test you on all of this when you are waiting for Joshua Bell to sign your CDs."
From this jovial talk at the beginning and his ease at the podium, Tovey seemed to like the piece immensely, and this translated into a confident and colorful performance. Principal flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly played a very gorgeous and well-shaped solo toward the beginning, and her playing was on-target throughout. James Wilt also nailed the famous (infamous!) trumpet solo, which so often gets slurry. He executed it with precision.
Petrushka is the kind of piece that needs to be played with abandon, yet within the parameters of its incredibly complex structure. Above all, Stravinsky displays the orchestra's color and contrast. The piece starts in waves, melodies poking out here and there. There is intricate interplay between the piano (played with great precision by Joanne Pearce Martin) and the woodwinds, then with string pizzicato. Characters and caricatures emerge and retreat: a plodding part; with a wailing clarinet paired with a tuba. The strings play deep down bows alongside a trumpet call, answered with pizzicato. Pulsing flutes emerge, seemingly unrelated, from a heavy tapestry of sound.
Tovey seemed to give the orchestra the kind of sure guidance required for both letting go musically and for staying on this ever-twisting and careening rhythmic and dynamic highway. Not only that, he seemed at times to be joy riding on the great waves of sound.
Alas, "Petrushka" does not end in a great wave of sound, only in a death whimper. Thus, the totally tepid audience response.
But for the record: I was ready to leap from my chair.
I am not surprised that Mr. Bell played so well-he always does. Definitely one of the best players out there today.
When will the interview be up?
(yeah, what Brian asked.... ?)
Thanks for taking us with you to the concert:-)
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