Stokowski at the Hollywood Bowl, sans Mickey Mouse

By Truman Wang
August 21, 2014

The star of the evening was not the conductor or the guest soloist, but Leopold Stokowski, who is perhaps best known to today’s casual Classical music listeners for his cameo with Mickey Mouse in Disney’s classic “Fantasia”. As a prolific conductor, arranger and composer, Stokowski undertook to reorchestrate/rearrange Mussorgsky’s and other composers’ works -- a popular practice before the modern era of con scritto ‘authentic’ movement that holds the written score sacrosanct.

In the Bach d-minor Toccata and Fugue, famously featured in the Disney “Fantasia’, Stokowski reveals his consummate showmanship through his use of a wide orchestral palette and penchant for dark effects (low strings and brasses predominate here, with odd smatterings of winds) -- no wonder this version is frequently associated with horror films.

The same dark, sardonic effects also inform the Stokowski versions of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. Particularly in the case of “Exhibition”, It is revealing to compare with the popular Ravel version. Stokowski removed the two lighthearted sections, “Tuileries” and “Limoges”, leaving only the dark pictures such as “The Gnome”, “Catacombs”, and the Baba Yaga witch’s Sabbath. Ravel’s famous trumpet solo in the opening Promenade is replaced with menacing low strings and winds, The Cattle do not appear gradually in a slow crescendo, but burst onto the scene with full force. Dark, heavy organ chords permeated throughout many parts, most prominently in the shadows of the “Catacombs”.

As a self-proclaimed Stokowski fan since childhood, conductor Stéphane Denève did an admirable job of channeling the late maestro in these works with the help of the great L.A. Phil musicians. Special kudos must be given to the Phil’s new principal flute from France, Julien Beaudiment, whose radiant playing in the “Bald Mountain” was to be treasured.

The concert was not all doom and gloom, however. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 (“Emperor”) showcased pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s pristine, note-perfect playing that eschewed the heroic for the intimate, as if he was playing chamber music for an audience of 10,000. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Mr. Hamelin is a deep, cerebral musician who is not afraid to strike out in new directions, even at the risk of offending the traditionalists. A case in point was his encore, Chopin’s familiar D-flat Major “Minute Waltz”, in which he transcribed the repeat to his own virtuosic specifications, and to the general delight of the audience.

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.