By Don Heckman
The Hollywood Bowl’s 2010 season kicked off with a typically spectacular, opening night show Friday. Three more inductions were made into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame. Each was a worthy choice, reaching from classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet to the legendary pop group, The Carpenters, and disco queen Donna Summer.
For audiences, the great benefit of these shows is the presence of performances by major name talent, as well as the peripheral benefit of celebrity introducers for each of the honorees. For this induction, it was actress Victoria Tennant for Thibaudet, Herb Alpert for The Carpenters and producer David Foster for Summer.
Ultimately, however, once past all the elaborate introductions and high-flying praise-singing, a music award show, like any other, is primarily about the quality and the quantity of the music. And the brisk, evening-opening performance of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under the direction of Thomas Wilkens clearly indicated that an entertaining program was under way.
Thibaudet affirmed that fact with a buoyant rendering of George Gershwin’s Variations on I Got Rhythm. The versatile Thibaudet has long had a special interest in jazz — most visibly so in his remarkable 1997 album, Conversations with Bill Evans — and he revealed an articulate rhythmic drive in his phrasing that is rarely heard in most concert pianists’ interpretations of the work. That lively rhythmic lift persisted throughout his reading of the Presto final movement of Ravel’s G Major Concerto, in which he explored the piece’s jazz ambitions in a way that surely would have delighted its composer.
The most poignant moments of the evening, perhaps predictably, were provided by the Carpenters segment. Richard Carpenter, playing piano, talking about the history of the group, playing several selections, was an amiable participant. But it was the presence of Karen Carpenter on video — her sweet smile and, above all else, the warm, dark timbre of her voice — that recalled a too-brief era in which the brother and sister team produced some of pop music’s most memorable songs.
Donna Summer’s set, however, backed by a full panoply of musicians and singers as well as — in the grand ending — a sky-illuminating array of fireworks, triggered the most enthusiastic, crowd-rousing responses of the evening. She romped through most of her hits — “No More Tears,” “On the Radio” and “Last Dance” among them — underscored with a tsunami of disco rhythms powerful enough to have most of the audience standing, exploring their best dance moves. But here, too, there was an added moment of poignancy, when Richard Carpenter came on stage to accompany Summer in a touching version of the Carpenters’ hit, “Superstar.”
Despite the presence of so much high profile talent, it remained for an unheralded collection of young musicians and singers from the Renaissance Arts Academy to nearly steal the show. Appearing as the recipients of funds from Music Matters — who combine with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to provide a flow of support for music education — the neophyte artists offered a gripping version of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna. With fiery illumination from the Bowl’s onstage video panels, and a climactic burst of flames from the overhead rims, the performance easily held its own amid this memorable all-star evening.