Gershwin and Slatkin a natural fit at Bowl

The conductor gave what seemed like a period performance Tuesday.

By Mark Swed
Times Staff Writer

July 14, 2005

On Sept. 8, 1937, two months after George Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38, a memorial concert was held at the Hollywood Bowl and broadcast over radio worldwide. Otto Klemperer, Fred Astaire, Al Jolson, Edward G. Robinson, Lily Pons and José Iturbi were among the performers who joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It is said that Highland Avenue became a mall as 22,000 people tried to get to the Bowl — some, such as Astaire, abandoning cars and taxis and simply walking.

A highlight of the program was the Concerto in F played by Oscar Levant and conducted by Charles Previn, a well-known studio conductor who had performed the concerto with Gershwin as soloist 28 times.

Some years later, in the '50s, Previn conducted a Los Angeles youth orchestra that included fledgling violist Leonard Slatkin. So Tuesday night, when the Philharmonic began a new season at the Bowl by launching a weeklong Gershwin Festival with a concert conducted by Slatkin, a baton of sorts was passed. The concert also marked the beginning of Slatkin's new post as principal guest conductor of the Philharmonic at the Bowl. The Piano Concerto in F was on the program. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the soloist.

Nearly 70 years after the Bowl memorial, musical styles have changed. No one now performs the concerto the way Levant and Previn did, not even the conductor's cousin André. The tendency today is to blow it up. It can take it, and I happen to find revelatory the grand style that the likes of André Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas can bring to it.

But it was interesting to hear Slatkin and Thibaudet give what seemed like a period performance Tuesday. Some of it could be mistaken for casualness. Slatkin, for instance, didn't overly concern himself with detail. But his Gershwin flows with a kind of naturalness that has been lost over the years as the composer has posthumously crossed over from the pop to the classical pantheon. (The crossover, ironically, began at the Bowl, when Klemperer opened the memorial by turning the second piano prelude into an orchestral dirge.)

Yet the Thibaudet/Slatkin concerto was not a complete success. Both performers, while each fine on his own, were like neighbors who find the best way to get along is with a fence. Thibaudet partied by his dramatically landscaped pool. Slatkin stayed indoors.

Thibaudet is a first-rate Ravel pianist and a second-rate jazz pianist, but he sometimes acts as if he wishes it was the other way around. Gershwin, on the other hand, was a great jazz player who wanted nothing more than to become an American Ravel. When Thibaudet let his natural suavity and clarity predominate, Gershwin really did meet Ravel on the French composer's own terms. But when Thibaudet jazzed up the concerto, it became a Ravel revel with misplaced accents.

Slatkin let the pianist be, and some nice things resulted, but not consistently. The same held true in the "I Got Rhythm" Variations, also heard Tuesday. A near-Lisztian showpiece that Gershwin wrote for piano and jazz band, it loses a lot in its arrangement for orchestra, which subdues the piano's flamboyance. Tuesday, Thibaudet and Slatkin seemed to find agreement on a safe middle ground, which allowed for flashes of piano brilliance, but that's all.

It's not easy to bring off an all-symphonic Gershwin program, given that the composer's true greatness was in song. Slatkin's attempt was to add original works by two Gershwin arrangers: Ferde Grofé's "Hollywood Suite" and Robert Russell Bennett's Concerto for Dance Band and Orchestra. Both are trivial music about trivia.

Grofé made a suite from a ballet that he wrote for the Bowl in 1935 about a stand-in in a movie. She's breezy. The director is breezy. The star is breezy. The carpenters and electricians on the set are breezy. The production number is ... well, you get the point.

Bennett is breezy too, but shorter-winded. He incorporates a small six-piece jazz band of winds and brass so seamlessly into the orchestra that you hardly even notice it. There are Hollywood bits here too, including what is called a "comedy scene." It got no laughs.

And finally, "An American in Paris." The hour had turned late, the evening had turned cool, but Slatkin came to life. The Philharmonic came to life. It was an excellent performance, full of character.

All it needed, perhaps, was some video of the evening's earlier gridlock on Highland to accompany Gershwin's vivid musical depiction of Parisian traffic. Some things really haven't changed since 1937.