Live Music: The Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Nicholas McGegan with violin soloist Ray Chen perform “Magnificent Mendelssohn” at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA.  Felix Mendelssohn was well served Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Nicholas McGegan with violin soloist Ray Chen. “Well served,” that is, by technical virtuosity and – most of the time, but not always – by expressive illumination.

The three works on an all-Mendelssohn program subtitled “Magnificent Mendelssohn” included the Hebrides Overture, the Violin Concerto in E minor and the Symphony No. 3. (Scottish)s. No surprises there.  It would be hard to imagine any significant Mendelssohn program that didn’t include at least one of his prime catalog items.

The Hebrides Overture came first. Conceived by Mendelssohn as an expression of his frequent trips to England and Scotland, the work is a mid-19th century tone poem rich with thematic content suggestive of early Impressionistic similarities. McGegan is well known for his early music credentials, but his more contemporary creative shaping of Hebrides led the responsive Philharmonic players into compelling aural passages calling up convincing atmospheric imagery of Scotland, from rocky coasts to rugged hillsides.

Nicholas McGegan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

For many listeners, however, the highlight of the program seemed to focus on Chen and the Violin Concerto. And understandably so. A showcase piece for violinists for a century and a half, the work offers a blend of technical demands and melodic lyricism beautifully shaped to display a violinist’s most persuasive musical skills. Which is, to a large extent, precisely how Chen approached the work.

Ray Chen
Ray Chen

In doing so, however, the balance of elements tended to be over-weighted by Chen’s masterful technical virtuosity. Largely because his fast-fingered displays too often took precedence over the Concerto’s rich potential for emotional expressiveness. Nor was his performance aided by the general lack of warmth in his sound, which tended to surrender its potential for emotional coloration – especially on the higher strings – to showcase technique.  A gifted violinist, he nonetheless still seems to be in the early stages of a potentially significant career.

The final work of the evening, the Symphony No. 3, was inspired – like the Hebrides Overture – by Mendelssohn’s fascination with Scotland. But here, he largely set aside the impressionistic qualities of the Overture in favor of classical, mid-19th century symphonic structuring. And there was no denying the appeal of Mendelssohn’s dynamic capacity to bring all those qualities together in utterly plausible fashion. Just as there was no lapse in McGegan’s leadership – which was conducted by hands, arms and body movements, sans a baton. By the time the Symphony concluded, its four movements performed in cumulative dramatic fashion, the program’s subtitle – Magnificent Mendelssohn – had been fully justified.

Despite some of the glitches mentioned above, the music itself could not be denied. And the only final complaint traced to McGegan’s surprising decision – despite the insistent audience applause – not to offer an encore for either Chen or the orchestra.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.

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