Live Music: The Los Angeles Philharmonic Performs Ravel, Gershwin and Bernstein at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

French and American musics of the early 20th century were linked by many common interests, not the least of which was jazz.  On Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the baton of Stéphane Denève, gave an illuminating performance of works by Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel revealing an intriguing interlacing of classical ambitions, French spirit and jazz rhythms, along with occasional traces of blues-tinged harmonies.

Leonard Bernstein

It was no surprise to hear the jazz qualities in Bernstein’s On the Town and his overture to Candide. Both works display his capacity to avoid literal connections, instead applying the subtly underplayed use of jazz elements as imaginative musical enhancements.  Solo passages – convincingly performed by trumpeter Donald Green on “Lonely Town” and alto saxophonist James Rotter on “New York, New York” – added more jazz timbres to the mix.

George Gershwin

Gershwin, of course, did have a more literal connection to jazz.  And his An American In Paris is a stirring example of the French/American jazz connection.  Memorable to many for its showcase visibility in the 1951 MGM musical of the same name, the music itself reaches well beyond its use as a ballet number for Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.  In the hands of the Philharmonic – which includes so many players whose skills reach beyond the demands of the classical repertoire – the results were captivating, simmering with gorgeous melodies and irresistible rhythms.

Maurice Ravel

The same was true, from a somewhat different perspective, of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. A lyrical adagio movement surrounded by a high powered opening Allegramente and followed by an equally dynamic Presto, the work reaches from fast-fingered, driving energies to balladic lyricism. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet soared through the demanding score with ease.  Technically masterful, he found the rhythmic lift Ravel invested in the fast passages, as well as the lyricism of the second movement.

The emphasis shifted dramatically toward the French side of the evening with the performance of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” originally commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes.  Its embracing melodic themes and lush harmonies, however, have established it as one of the classics of the Impressionist repertoire.  And, once again, the marvelous players of the Philharmonic offered as adept and communicative a rendering of this work as they did with the evening’s more diverse material.

The most significant solo segments of Daphnis and Chloe – a sequence of atmospheric flute passages – were delivered with ease by flutist David Buck.

However, from a contrarian viewpoint, it’s also worth mentioning the evening’s only questionable aspect — that Denève’s conducting, lacking in focus for the early part of the performance, seemed far more in touch with the subtleties of the Ravel score than with the Bernstein and Gershwin works, in which the rhythmic electricity appeared to be sparked more by the energies of the players than by Denève’s baton.

Appropriately, given the often expressed view of jazz as the “sound of surprise,” the Program closed with a sudden, unannounced event, when the Philharmonic unexpectedly began a reprise of Candide, and the Bowl’s pyrotechnic masters kicked off a stunning display of fireworks.  Perfectly linking the Bernstein work’s surging rhythms to the equally exciting overhead display of fire and lightning, it was the ideal climax for a musically stirring evening.

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