Music Review: LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl, August 13, 2019: “Britain at the Bowl”

Music Review

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Britain at the Bowl

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Bramwell Tovey, conductor

Los Angeles Master Chorale

Grant Gershon, artistic director

Sir Thomas Allen, baritone

Program: (guest artist in parenthesis) [additional information]

Handel: Zadok the Priest (Los Angeles Master Chorale)

Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Coates: The Dam Busters March

Gilbert & Sullivan: Overture to Iolanthe

Gilbert & Sullivan: “When I was a Lad” from H.M.S. Pinafore (Allen / Master Chorale)

Gilbert & Sullivan: “Fair Moon, to Thee I Sing” from H.M.S. Pinafore (Allen)

Gilbert & Sullivan: “As some day it may Happen” from The Mikado (Allen / Chorale)

Coward arr. Tovey: Thank You, Mr. Coward! (Chorale)

[A Room with a View/Someday I’ll Find You/Could You Please Oblige us with a Bren Gun/There Have Been Songs in England/Mad Dogs and Englishmen/London Pride]

Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (Allen / Chorale)

Hollywood Bowl, August 13, 2019

Los Angeles, CA

By Vincent Young

August 14, 2019

            Politically and socially, I’m an American through and through.  As a musician, I love our eclectic musical identity, from marches to jazz to rock to show tunes to blues to everything in between.  African and Middle Eastern rhythms have added to my musical pallet.  European classical music traditions are really my first love as a listener.  I first heard Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” before I could do much of anything, my introduction to this wonderfully mysterious and most universal area of culture called music, and from that moment, music has always been my most intimate partner.  I love music most of all for the different ways in which other cultures use it, yet the classical masters always reign supreme in my heart.

            In all my years of listening to classical music, and learning about the lives of various composers, I felt a particularly strong connection to those of the United Kingdom.  Throughout my life, I keep coming back to this jolly yet humane aesthetic.  Amidst chaos, our society needs a civilized escape.  I, for one, find myself needing it more frequently than usual.  The music of the UK, like their TV shows and films for my parents, continues to uplift, inspire, and console.  The speaking accents alone are music to me.  These speaking accents, and their beautiful verbal language, are luckily found right in their music.  One listen to music by any UK composer Is a balm for the soul.

            What a way to kick off a milestone birthday, somewhat earlier than usual, than as part of the Hollywood Bowl’s annual classical music summer season.  I try to find concerts at the Bowl that are once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  This one was no exception.  I first heard Sir Thomas Allen’s voice singing Sullivan at four years old, as Captain Corcoran on the Telarc rendition of H.M.S. Pinafore; then his Jack Point on the Philips rendition of The Yeomen of the Guard; and subsequently his versatility throughout my life.  His strong, resonant baritone voice is a model for today’s young opera singers in training.  This year is his fiftieth anniversary in show business, and last night was his Hollywood Bowl debut.  Bramwell Tovey’s eclecticism makes him my role model musician, from classical to jazz.  His Iolanthe Overture rendition, which I heard at 10 on the CBC Music CD, A Gilbert and Sullivan Gala, served as a great introduction to his joyous and emotional approach.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale have equally versatile resumes, and their collective and individual sound is audio’s answer to the finest gourmet meal.  Last night’s program was deliciously civilized, yet all at once jolly, fun, intimate, and extravagant.

            Opening with John Stafford Smith’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Thomas Arne’s “God Save the Queen,” each selection was enhanced by a monologue in which Maestro Tovey explained each piece through his jolly personality, informative and accessible diction, and mature voice.  Tovey, diagnosed with a rare cancer last month whose condition has since decreased in intensity, was limber, thrilling and victorious as ever.  He conducted confident, theatrical and swaggering interpretations of every selection.  The program’s first half consisted of two wonderful examples of British musical culture: Handel’s Zadok the Priest, aided by shining trumpets, bombastic timpani strokes, lush woodwinds, soaring strings, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s majestic sound; and concluding with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (or, “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell”), conducted with chameleonic clarity by Maestro Tovey, as Britten’s riffs on Purcell’s theme traveled throughout the LA Phil’s various sections and individual members; I particularly enjoyed the beautiful variations for the woodwinds, the majesty of the brass variations, and the clever manipulations of the most famous percussion instruments, with the fugal finale truly a sound worthy of repeated exposure.  The Handel salad and Britten main course only served to prepare us for the dessert to come.

Eric Coates, the “uncrowned king of British light music,” wrote his famous Dam Busters March as his last hit.  It is by far his most famous composition.  The piece was inspired by a composing exercise to write a march in the style of Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance military marches.  In this way, the middle section of Coates’ and Elgar’s marches have similar sounding tunes, with long phrases perfect for operatic ballad singing.  Tovey clearly loved lingering on Coates’ beautiful phrases, and really accentuating the lighter phrases.  His rendition of The Dam Busters March was never rushed, and the final hymn-like section was most reverently prolonged, with an explosive ending.

            Our next segment included the works of Sirs W. S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan, and Noel Coward.  All three artists took their frivolity very seriously, yet also got the chance to express their tender side.  Love them or hate them, their contribution is timeless.  The rendition of Sullivan’s Iolanthe Overture was more “Hollywood” than usual, with lush additions to Sullivan’s original orchestrations which Sullivan never even considered in his own time, certainly the audio equivalent of the fanciest ice cream sundae: a thick, creamy, and chunky rendition, all at once, of Sullivan’s best operetta overture, and extremely well-performed at that.  Sir Thomas Allen arrived to a thunderous ovation, performing Sir Joseph’s introductory patter song from H.M.S. Pinafore with his usual professionalism.  Next, Captain Corcoran’s ballad from the same show provided the chance for Allen’s balladry to take center stage.  What a way to kick off a debut at such a legendary establishment.  The resonance in his voice shone through this entire selection, and his passion for Sullivan’s eclectic style still rings true.  The graceful Mozartian writing here is the perfect vehicle for Allen’s years of experience in his field.  Finally, the List Song from The Mikado provided Allen the chance to skewer today’s contemporary offenders and offenses.  The Los Angeles Master Chorale made a great collective partner for Allen in these Gilbert and Sullivan items.  Next, the Chorale and LA Phil took center stage in Tovey’s own medley of Noel Coward tunes, entitled Thank You, Mr. Coward!  This contrasting and beautiful medley included the up-tempo foxtrot of Room with a View; the lush waltz Someday I’ll Find You; the march-time Could You Please Oblige us with a Bren Gun; the beautifully patriotic There Have Been Songs in England; the most famous and comic Mad Dogs and Englishmen; and a very contemporary accompaniment to a classically phrased rendition of the beautiful song London Pride, a final crescendo leading into musical fireworks at the end.

            The most famous musical symbol of Great Britain is Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, whose middle section had war-like words by A. C. Benson.  Sir Malcolm Sargent began the tradition in the 1940s of having British citizens sing Benson’s words along with the march’s famous middle section.  Tovey advocated that Americans really must understand the significance of this composition: it’s not just a short refrain to be played very casually at graduation ceremonies; there are important words to British citizens which Benson wrote to fit this section; and even if the performer of these words isn’t British, the timeless ideas of the words still hold meaning.  The Philharmonic’s performance was triumphant, majestic, and inspiring, and the LA Master Chorale and Sir Thomas Allen’s addition of Benson’s words made this a most appropriate conclusion to this special evening.

            We all need a civilized escape.  This concert provided that chance.  There was no better setting than the Hollywood Bowl, the sound bouncing off the concrete; the LA Phil and Master Chorale are one of the best musical collaborations; Bramwell Tovey is a most adaptable and joyous maestro; and Sir Thomas Allen’s strong, resonant, mature voice fits any style of classical singing.  The music of the UK’s composers soothes the soul, comforts the heart, and lets the mind soar.  Britain at the Bowl must surely have been one of the best classical music experiences I’ve ever attended, truly a “show” in every musical sense, from ceremonial pomp to cheeky joy, reverent patriotism, regal splendor, and ultimately a familiar, civilized comfort.  We all need to experience this aesthetic as frequently as we can.  Thank you to each and every artist involved for creating this experience for those of us lucky enough to have attended.  The British Empire may be gone, but its music grows mightier, a testament to music’s timeless appeal.