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Music review: Grant Gershon opens Hollywood Bowl classical season

July 7, 2010 |  3:33 pm
Jessica (2)
The evening was already turning cold Tuesday when the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale opened this summer’s classical season at the Hollywood Bowl with the “Lacrymosa” movement from Mozart’s Requiem, performed in memory of Ernest Fleischmann, who died on June 13.

As head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1969 to 1998, Fleischmann reinvented summer concerts with fireworks, “Star Wars” extravaganzas, Mozart and modern music marathons, Peter Sellars nights of experimentation, concert opera with emerging artists (with the likes of Jessye Norman, Luciano Pavarotti and James Levine way back when), and with cheap, young, even teenage talent (one Simon Rattle included).

Fireworksgal From his central box, Fleischmann cajoled audiences over the loudspeakers, screamed at air controllers over his phone to keep the bloody planes and helicopters away, and commanded engineers in the sound booth to boost violins when they weren’t coming through to his satisfaction. He railed and he reveled, always in the end believing in the magic of music, no matter what, to win over audiences.

He was right, and he was proven right once again Tuesday. A large crowd of 9,545 braved the chill wrapped in winter fleece and blankets. The program was not, on paper, populist or stellar opening night material. Grant Gershon conducted Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and Poulenc’s “Gloria.” He began with a rare Haydn “Te Deum.” At the end, though, came the fun of Handel's “Hallelujah” chorus with fireworks.  

Months ago, the evening had been planned to celebrate Gershon’s 10th anniversary as music director of the Master Chorale, a success story that the L.A. Philharmonic appreciates. Not only does the chorus regularly collaborate with the orchestra, but Gershon’s career took off when he had been hired (by Fleishmann, of course) to be Esa-Pekka Salonen’s assistant in 1994.

Tuesday was a night, on all levels, of glory. Celebrating a naval hero, Haydn Te-Deumed Lord Nelson. For Vivaldi, God was great because the Venetian composer could write joyous music for a school full of young women eager to fulfill his every musical desire. Poulenc’s “Gloria” might well have been Gloria (or the male equivalent), namely a love interest. In this irresistible late score, the chapel butts up against the bistro on the Parisian boulevard. Poulenc’s God is all that is sensual and sentimental, a concoction of incense and sex.

A Gershon opening night was overdue. His last program at the Bowl was in 1997 while still an assistant conductor. Although he turns 50 in November, he retains a boyish appearance and also a fresh, innocent-seeming oneness with music. He sings nearly every phrase he conducts, breathing Haydn, Vivaldi and Poulenc. 

The “Te Deum” is mature, magnificent Haydn. At eight minutes, it is a throwaway, perhaps, but could also have been a movement in a late mass or “The Creation.” Gershon used a large orchestra and chorus and called the Bowl to attention.

Jessica In Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” Gershon reduced orchestra and vocal forces considerably and sought somewhat proper Baroque period practice style. The main vocal soloists were soprano Jessica Rivera and alto Kelley O’Connor, like their conductor, local talent gone on to the big time. A bit of luxury casting allowed Christine Brandes to be assigned the minor second soprano part.

Vivaldi’s sacred style here is little different from the theatrical style of his operas, and Gershon (who is also associate conductor of Los Angeles Opera and who will conduct a new Sellars production of Vivaldi’s “Griselda” at Santa Fe Opera next summer) approached the “Gloria” as a man of the theater. This was particularly noticeable in the operatic approach to Rivera’s “Domine Deus,” which included Ariana Ghez’s vibrant oboe solo, and O’Connor’s soulful numbers as well.

Written as a kind of appendix to his opera, “The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” Poulenc’s “Gloria” is operatic, as well. Chorus and orchestra here were very large. Rivera was the soloist. The performance was robust. A delight.

Amplification is always an issue at the Bowl. I retain a fondness for Leonard Bernstein’s seductive 1976 New York recording of this "Gloria" (made 15 years after Poulenc’s score was given its premiere by the Boston Symphony). It was released in rather poor sound, but I return to it over and over again anyway. The Bowl equipment, more than 30 years later, offers no better fidelity. But as the evening temperature stabilizes and one’s ear adjusts, the music takes over. Trust the music, Fleischmann told me when I complained about amplification. This “Gloria” was glorious.

So too were the fireworks. The canons boomed too obviously in time to Handel, but the sparkling gold and mauve lights had a fitting, inspiring life of their own. Thank you, Ernest.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Top, Grant Gershon leading the National Anthem to open the Hollywood Bowl classical season Tuesday night. Below, soprano Jessica Rivera. Credit: Anne Cusack /Los Angeles Times


Bowl The Hollywood Bowl's spectacular fireworks

An appreciation: Ernest Fleischmann

Ernest Fleischmann, Los Angeles Philharmonic impresario and music visionary, dies at 85