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[Updated] Music review: Joshua Bell and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos at the Hollywood Bowl

July 16, 2010 |  1:15 pm
How quickly the climate changes these days. The Hollywood Bowl opened its classical season last week in deep freeze, wind unwelcome, the audience bundled in blankets and winter coats. Thursday night, though, was like the tropics in the Cahuenga Pass, the temperature never dropping below 80, the humidity high, the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing in shirtsleeves. This time a breeze strong enough to sway the microphones on stage, while no fun for the sound folks, was pure heaven for the rest of us.

All that, and Joshua Bell playing Bruch’s wee dingy “Scottish Fantasy,” the billowy clouds lighty and the picnickers wheesh’d. Scots slang, in truth, hardly suits this neglected Scottish schmaltz, composed by a 19th century German Romantic, no matter how lovely the twilit clouds or intently silenced the crowd for a popular violinist.

Bruch’s Fantasy for violin and orchestra once had its day, as did Guy Lombardo and many other forms of retro music. Heifetz played it to the hilt (probably even at the Bowl many decades ago). And, in fact, Bruch's fantasizing about Scottish folk tunes wasn't all that different from what might be found on Hollywood soundtracks accompanying romance on the Highlands.

Bell seemed an enigma this night. Handsome, elegantly tailored, he appears the model of the modern violinist. But his sentiments are of another era. He played Bruch’s Fantasy very well. His tone was recognizably sweet and neat, despite a sound system that didn’t pump his violin up quite enough. Bell is a true old-fashioned virtuoso, a showman with style, as could be plainly viewed on the video screen close-ups.

But the mistake was to show the soloist from the waist up, as if that would make him seem bigger than life. Instead, with the amplification too subtle, the effect was opposite. Bell, like many a rock guitarist, plays from his body, not his head. Still, he committed himself to Bruch’s frilly decorations of maudlin melody and great flights of florid writing with clear pleasure, as if made for this music. A half-hour passed by agreeably. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted with detached bemusement.

There was no opener, and -- stranger still given Bell’s many fans in the audience – no encore on an evening made for one. 

After intermission, Frühbeck de Burgos led Mahler’s First Symphony. You remember Mahler's First Symphony. This is the score that Gustavo Dudamel conducted at his Walt Disney Concert Hall gala in early October, a program broadcast to most places in the world able to receive television signals, released on DVD and as an audio download. It may well have been the most widely heard classical performance anywhere last season.

This is the symphony that Dudamel repeated four more times in Disney and then took on a U.S. tour. He concluded that tour in New York less than two months ago with a Mahler First that drove an Avery Fisher Hall audience to happy distraction and, on the tour, drove several American critics, annoyed by what they interpreted as interpretive overload, to unhappy distraction.

Frühbeck de Burgos – a genial, old-school Spaniard who is 47 years senior to L.A.’s spirited Venezuelan music director – did not work up a sweat Thursday night. Instead, he made Mahler look easy. Unlike Dudamel, who coaxes tenderness, electrifies the composer’s extravagant moods and reaches the symphony's end in a stage of unalloyed joy, the civilized Frühbeck de Burgos, once more, remained bemused. The orchestra played decently, with the winds sounding splendid and the strings adding a veneer of velvet to Mahlerian idylls.

The symphony evokes nature. Bird sounds open the first movement, and when the wind picked up in its development section, there was an overt sense of ruffled feathers, of a forest coming to charming life. The wind was again Mahler’s friend in the stormy Finale, whooshing through the microphones.

There are more emotional events in Mahler than Frühbeck de Burgos, who conducted without a score, cared to confront. But summer has arrived, everyone needs a break now and then, and every performance hardly needs to be memorable. Plus not even the greatest conductors can summon up at will a perfect climate, soft air and a midsummer breeze. 

-- Mark Swed

[For the record: An earlier version of this review misspelled Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos,]

Photo: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Joshua Bell as violin soloist at the Hollywood Bowl Thursday night. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times.


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