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The Hollywood Bowl kicks off its season with tributes to Donna Summer, the Carpenters and more

June 20, 2010 |  6:52 pm

People don’t come to the annual Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame and Opening Night concert expecting to hear, say, an entire symphony or a complete set by their favorite pop star. Or at least they shouldn’t by now.

The Hall of Fame concert is supposed to be like a platter of musical hors d’oeuvres, an event that anticipates the diversity of the Bowl season ahead as best it can in a couple of hours. A little something for everyone, while accepting the risk of satisfying no one. Those in the lower boxes dine lavishly on culinary creations from Patina, while others picnic as usual. Fireworks polish off the evening. And it’s all for a good cause, a benefit for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Music Matters music-education programs.

Lately, one notices that there has been some narrowing of the range of the music; it doesn’t fly off in as many directions as in the past. Also, the amount of talk from the stage was tightened Friday night, which made the  presentation flow better.

But the streamlining went so far that Brahms’s not-unreasonably-long “Academic Festival” Overture was edited to half its length. Normally, it takes 10 minutes and change to perform the piece; Thomas Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra did it in five. The music sounded boomy and canned, like an ancient recording (the sound quality improved later on in the night).

The first of the Hall of Fame honorees, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, sailed through Gershwin’s delicious “I Got Rhythm” Variations – overly genteel and not quite in sync with the orchestra at first but gradually working in some spiky glitter and friskiness. He then rattled off the finale from Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with driving energy at a bracing, breakneck tempo. Neither piece was identified in the program or announced to the audience – which did no one any good.

 The next two new Hall of Famers, the Carpenters and Donna Summer, were essentially escapist bookends to the 1970s – the former as a soothing, romantic antidote to the residual turbulence of the early-'70s, and the latter coming in near the end of the decade as the very symbol of the disco era.

Richard Carpenter is the surviving member of the brother-and-sister team. (Karen died in 1983 at age 32 from cardiac arrest related to anorexia.) He has kept a relatively low profile since their heyday; indeed, he had not performed at the Bowl since the Carpenters sold out the place in the 1970s. Carpenter led the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra rather gracefully in a symphonically conceived medley of Carpenters hits before turning the baton over to Wilkins. Songs sung by Karen on video screens from vintage TV shows, “For All We Know” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” were synced remarkably well with Richard’s piano and the orchestra. Carpenter also revived a precocious souvenir of his band that won the Bowl’s 1966 Battle of the Bands – a jazz waltz, “Iced Tea,” for piano, bass, drums and tuba.

Summer, still every inch the diva, reprised some of her cannily structured hits from the height of the disco fad – “On The Radio,” “MacArthur Park,” “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” and to close, of course, “Last Dance” – as the Bowl lighted up in a dazzling display of gaudy lights and flash. But evidently Summer wants to be recognized for more than just disco, taking care to include credible renditions of “Nature Boy” – backed by a lush-sounding arrangement that resembled the original one on Nat King Cole’s hit record – and, in tandem with Carpenter, “Superstar.”

 The most satisfying performance of the evening was by an orchestra and choir of the Renaissance Arts Academy, an L.A. Phil partner school and Fidelity FutureStage participant. Crowded onto the front of the stage, the kids sang and played the opening chorus of Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” “O Fortuna,” marvelously as flames and special effects leaped from the screens at the back of the
shell. It was a great commercial for Music Matters.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Photo: Richard Carpenter performed at the Hollywood Bowl while images of his late sister, Karen, appeared on the monitors. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.