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Music review: McGegan, Labèques and Mozart at the Hollywood Bowl

July 21, 2010 |  3:39 pm
Happy days are here again. Nic is back at the Bowl.

Having come up with a winning combination of the cheerful Nicholas McGegan leading an all-Mozart program at the Hollywood Bowl last year – opening overture, cheery piano concerto and big symphony – the Los Angeles Philharmonic repeated the formula Tuesday night and will again on Thursday. This time, to double the ebullience ante, there was Mozart’s “extremely jolly” (McGegan’s description) Concerto for Two Pianos with Katia and Marielle Labèque as soloists. Instead of August’s dark 40th Symphony, there was the much livelier “Linz” (Symphony No. 36).

Once more a beaming McGegan (he refers to himself as Nic on his website) bounded on stage, video cameras broadcasting big smiles on big screens. Once more a small-sized L.A. Philharmonic made the bright, nimble, tart 18th-century-like sounds that this British early music specialist and music director of the Bay Area’s Philharmonia Baroque favors.

Atypically for the Bowl, though, the first half of the program featured atypical Mozart. For an “overture,” McGegan chose three of the four entr’actes from “Thamos, King of Egypt,” which together – a dramatic first movement, a minor-keyed slow movement and an upbeat finale – could have been a small 15-minute Mozart symphony. Then again, given how short the program was (only a single hour’s worth of music), McGegan might have actually programmed a slightly longer real symphony instead. 

“Thamos” contains Mozart’s one attempt at writing incidental music for a play, an “heroic drama” by a certain Tobias Philipp Freiherr von Gebler that was first staged in Bratislava in 1773 with another composer’s score. The 20-year-old Mozart was asked for something better when the show about sun worship and sin in ancient Egypt reached Salzburg three years later. He added more numbers (including some for chorus and vocal soloists) for a later revival.

One can find here hints of the composer of “Magic Flute” to come. But incidental music tends to irritate dedicated opera composers (Philip Glass being an exception) and the Two Piano Concerto, from 1779, is, in fact, the more theatrical work. Written for the composer to play with his sister, this is Mozart’s most playful concerto, full of “naughty humor,” McGegan said in his witty, brief remarks made as he filled time while “strong men” lifted the piano lid.

There is a lot of teasing and one-upmanship between the pianists, and it would be hard to imagine a duo more suited to this music than the glamorous Labèque sisters, who have been playing together for at least half a century. They performed from memory, trills and scales rolling from one piano to the other as if a single instrument and player.

But there was also plenty of willfully individual display, and in the slow movement, they achieved a unified lovely, divine dignity. While I am not always a fan of the video aspect to the Bowl, the occasional use of a split screen to show the sisters was inspired and needn't have been only occasional.

McGegan might have also been given more on-screen attention. He conducts without a baton, excitingly scooping the music up with his hands and arms. But we never got to watch him expressively mimic more than a bar or two at time, the impatient camera busily cutting away to show trumpet or timpani. That was too bad in the “Linz,” which McGegan led with characteristic flair, punching out rhythms and merrily getting maximum ping for his buck.

In his desire for splendor and speed, McGegan rushed past repeats, getting through the score in 23 uplifting minutes and getting us out of the Bowl at a quarter to 10. But why? There was time to linger. An encore by the Labèques at least would have been warranted (Mozart wrote much exceptional music for two pianos and also for piano four hands).

An encore in these parts for McGegan is warranted as well, and perhaps next time something grander. One of the great Handel men on the scene, he regularly performs the oratorios with Philharmonia Baroque in Berkeley. The Bowl is not that far away.

-- Mark Swed

“Los Angeles Philharmonic All-Mozart.” Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursday. $1 to $129. (332) 850-2000 or

Photo: Nicholas McGegan at the Hollywood Bowl last year. Credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times.