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Music review: Leonard Slatkin returns to the Hollywood Bowl

August 24, 2011 |  1:00 pm

Leonard Slatkin and Andre Watts

There’s not a whole lotta Liszt going on at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The Hungarian composer’s 200th birthday is in October. Celebrations abound internationally and CDs flood the market, which is as it should be. No major composer has more unjustly neglected music than Liszt.

Ours, even so, is not a sentimental orchestra. It doesn’t tend to do much with anniversaries. This time it is missing the boat. But a little Liszt at the Hollywood Bowl is better than none, even if that little bit has been potboilers. Lang Lang mooned his way through a popular solo piano Liszt (the third “Consolation”) for an encore on the L.A. Philharmonic’s opening night concert in July. Gustavo Dudamel conducted an almost comically over-familiar Liszt Hungarian dance with fabulous zest the next week.

On Tuesday night Leonard Slatkin, the L.A. Philharmonic’s former principal guest conductor at the Bowl, returned for the first of two programs this week, and he began with Liszt’s overplayed symphonic poem, “Les Préludes,” and the evergreen Second Piano Concerto. André Watts, a longtime Lisztian, was the soloist. The performances were engrossing.

It was disappointing that Slatkin, who has an inquiring musical mind, didn’t turn to one of the lesser known of Liszt’s 14 symphonic poems, but he found the core lyricism of “Les Préludes” and made its  famous melody sing. Some find “Les Préludes” bombastic. Slatkin does not.

Watts made his Bowl debut at 17 in 1963, playing Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, shortly after he had proven a sensation in performances of the score with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. This time Watts came, as he always does these days to the Bowl (and to Disney Concert Hall), with his own piano. He likes something more resonant than what the L.A. Philharmonic has to offer.

And he certainly made it resonate. You might have thought that the Bowl had spruced up its sound system with new super subwoofers. But it was a pianist with big hands, a big technique and a booming instrument.

He attacked Liszt with oracular authority. Big chords became monster chords, his mouth bobbing, trout-like, as if to use his body as a resonator too. Watts had all the skill in the world to handle delicate piano ornaments, and fleeting passages flew by expertly, but always as lightning before the thunder.

The concerto has a sumptuous slow melody in the middle, played by a solo cello. Watts never got in the way of principal cellist Peter Stumpf's lush tone. Maybe he was being respectful of the fact that Stumpf will leave the orchestra at the end of the summer to teach, so this was one of his last big moments. But for Watts these passages were also mere way stations to the big pianistic statements just around the corner.

Slatkin’s most impressive moments came after intermission with Ravel's “Mother Goose” Suite and the second suite to “Daphnis and Chloe.”  An all-American conductor appears to be brushing up on his French. In the fall, Slatkin, who is music director of the Detroit Symphony, will also take on the directorship of the Orchestre National de Lyon in France.

That new post seems like an odd fit. But Slatkin’s Ravel on Tuesday night was persuasive. His “Mother Goose” reminded me of Giulini, misty-eyed in its sweetness, the orchestra sounding radiant. “Daphnis” was more brilliant. Instrumental colors were conveyed with a boldness. Textures were clean. Rhythms had punch. The General Dance at the end of “Daphnis” wasn’t a bacchanalian orgy exactly, but the spirit was plenty strong. You can, after all, do only so much at the Bowl.

RELATED:

Conductor Leonard Slatkin: Looking forward after two rough years

Critic's Notebook: It's time to cut Slatkin some slack

He's no stranger to the Bowl

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic with conductor Leonard Slatkin, Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood: 8 p.m. Thursday, $1 to $130; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photo: Conductor Leonard Slatkin and pianist André Watts perform Liszt's Second Piano Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times

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