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Review: Slatkin conducts Brahms at the Hollywood Bowl

August 5, 2009 |  4:30 pm

You can usually expect something unusual from Leonard Slatkin – a juxtaposition of Elgar and Philip Glass, a program of once-popular short subjects from the 78 rpm era, reviving William Schuman’s great Symphony No. 3, among other fine recent ideas. So then, how does one explain Slatkin’s latest brainstorm for the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night – all Brahms, all the time? You could say this was unpredictably predictable programming.

Slatkin As Slatkin disarmingly pointed out, there isn’t very much to choose in orchestral Brahms – the four symphonies, four concertos, two overtures, the “Haydn” Variations, and once in a great while, the two serenades. While there are always thousands of Bowl-goers who have never heard them, it’s tempting for the rest of us, as well as performers, to yawn and take these pieces for granted. 

But Slatkin did not take Brahms for granted Tuesday night. Nor did the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Nor did Siberian violinist Vadim Repin. If this was your first Brahms concert, you made out well.

Slatkin’s rendition of the Symphony No. 2 sounded fresh, urgent, direct and communicative, establishing the swaying rhythm of the first movement from the opening bars and eliciting some beautifully phrased work from the cellos in the second. The finale was just about everything one could want – well played, rumbling forth at a vigorous clip with delicately handled transitions and a genuinely jubilant final roar.

Repin is one of the best we’ve got in the solo violin world. Like his great Russian predecessors, he can convey intensity and passion without forcing his tone – and there were some startlingly eloquent passages in the center of the first movement of the Violin Concerto that approached greatness.

The inventive, quote-laden cadenza came from one of those Russians, Jascha Heifetz; the second movement sang soulfully yet without schmaltz; and Repin was aware of the value of surprise with some splendid thrusts in the finale. While there were imperfect, not completely in tune patches (Repin’s recent Deutsche Grammophon recording is smoother in every respect), there was always something interesting going on, and Slatkin fed upon some of his soloist’s fire. 

In search of a appetizer, Slatkin briefly broke free from standard Brahms and offered a comfortably paced Hungarian Dance No. 1, one of three that Brahms orchestrated from the piano originals.  It would have been nice to have heard more of the dances; they’re perfect for the Bowl. Now there’s an idea for another Slatkin short-subject program ....

-- Richard S. Ginell

Slatkin conducts Tchaikovsky. 8 p.m. Thursday; Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.,  Hollywood; $1 to $96; (323) 850-2000.

Photo: File photo of Leonard Slatkin. Credit: Los Angeles Times