By Don Heckman
It was reasonable, I suppose, that the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s September 11 show at the Bowl Tuesday night would have some sort of patriotic aspect, acknowledging the eleventh anniversary of the attacks on Manhattan’s World Trade Center.
And a program of works by Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein would seem to have been a reasonable solution. Although the inclusion of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, rather than, say, Rhapsody in Blue, some selections from Porgy and Bess or the Variations on I Got Rhythm seemed a bit odd. (One of several oddities in this otherwise entertaining evening.)
Fortunately, the Philharmonic, under the dependable baton of Bramwell Tovey, looked beyond the 9/11 linkage and found the high-spirited heart of the Cuban Overture, with the percussionists generating enough dynamic rhythms to bring some audiences into the aisles (but not this one). Here, as in his other appearances with the Philharmonic, Tovey cut a relatively modest figure as a conductor, omitting the dramatic choreography that some favor. As always, the net result was a connection with the players that produced a richly expressive performance.
Violinist Sarah Chang’s presence on the program was a welcome promise of high musical expectations. And with good reason. Her impressive virtuosity is always placed at the service of rich, emotional layers of interpretation. Still, at first glance, positioning her as the soloist in a suite from Bernstein’s West Side Story, also seemed a curious choice.
David Newman’s orchestration, however, created a stunning showcase for Chang, encouraging her to soar through the memorable melodies of Maria, Tonight and Somewhere,and dip nimbly into the stirring urban rhythms of Mambo. Not exactly the sort of classical concerto performance one might ordinarily expect to hear from Chang, but an enchanting experience, nonetheless.
It remained, however, for the Copland works – A Lincoln Portrait and the Billy the Kid Suite – to provide the final touches of 9/11 patriotism. As they did. Perhaps more than any other composer, Copland masterfully created large scale works convincingly rooted in the melodies and rhythms of Americana.
But here, too, there was an unexpected twist. Rather than a Hollywood star with a mellifluous voice, the reader/narrator for A Lincoln Portrait was Zev Yaroslavsky, a politician and a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. And, as it turned out, it wasn’t a bad decision. Yaroslavsky has been, and continues to be, a fervent supporter of the arts in L.A. And his reading of the Lincoln Portrait narration was delivered with a warm incisiveness, appropriately honoring the 16th President.
Call it an engaging evening of appealing music and modest patriotism, with splendid contributions from Sarah Chang, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Bramwell Tovey, as the 2012 classical season reaches its closing performances.