By Truman C. Wang
British guest conductor/humorist Bramwell Tovey is a perennial favorite at LA Phil, not only for his considerable musical acumen, but also for his endless supply of jokes and anecdotes. Never microphone-shy, Tovey emerged from the wings before start of the concert and promptly launched into his standup routine. Seeing a stagehand lifting up the piano lid, Tovey quipped, “This is how you get a raise at the Hollywood Bowl.” Later, he cautioned against the risqué text of Carmina Burana and directed all listener complaints to be mailed to the composer Carl Orff. “But do not expect a reply,” Tovey said wryly, “because Carl Orff is a de-composer.”
The music-making, however, was all serious and seriously fun.
Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Op.80, was the concluding piece of the famous December 22, 1808 concert that included first performances of the Symphonies No. 5 and 6, Mass in C, Coriolan Overture and Piano Concerto No. 4 (no word on how many still in the audience by the end of this long evening). The piano part was improvised by Beethoven (hence the name ‘Fantasia’). Pianist Emanuel Ax not only reveled in the improvisatory quality of the opening keyboard solo, but brought out the fun of the variations on the main theme, a melody that sounds a lot like the ‘Joy’ theme in the Ninth Symphony. The giant video screens followed each solo contribution in turn – solo flute, two oboes, two clarinets and bassoon, string quartet and so on – with maestro Tovey injecting manic energy into the csárdás-like variation, and swagger into the military march. The choral contribution came as an exciting epilogue, very well sung by the six soloists and the LA Master Chorale.
I shall always treasure the Carmina Burana at the Bowl from many summers ago with spectacular fireworks timed to the syncopated rhythm of the final “O Fortuna” chorus. In tonight’s concert, the fireworks were all in the brilliant orchestra and choruses. The LA Children’s Chorus did a beautiful job of providing enchanting colors to the often-raunchy medieval poems about “men and women of the church behaving badly” (in Tovey’s words again). The LA Master Chorale and LA Phil musicians successfully projected the animal vitality and vivid character portraiture of many poems set to Carl Orff’s richly descriptive music. The three soloists all sounded superb – Brenton Ryan’s soaring high tenor, Nicholas Phan’s screeching high tenor in the hilarious “Roasted Goose” number (with the orchestra fanning the slow roast) and Chinese lirico-coloratura soprano Ying Fang’s star turn showing off her impeccable vocal acrobatics and a lovely bell-like voice.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.