Jazz Star, ‘Planets’ Light Up Night At Hollywood Bowl

The Hollywood Bowl, home away from home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on an explosive night.
The Hollywood Bowl, home away from home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on a particularly explosive night.
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – Though Bramwell Tovey relinquished the post of principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl a few summers ago, he has conducted at the Bowl annually ever since.

Bramwell Tovey is principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl. (L.A.Phil)
Bramwell Tovey, at the Hollywood Bowl, is a summer regular.

No wonder: The droll, quick-witted, British-born maestro has been a popular figure in the great informal outdoors, and he has proven to be a solid, respected, versatile musician open to all kinds of ventures.

After presiding over the first week of Bowl subscription concerts in July, Tovey returned during the final week on Sept. 9 with an all-British program that contained a sure thing and a gamble. First came the gamble – the North American premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Erskine, a concertante for drum set and orchestra, in a facility that habitually plays it safe in classical programming.

Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer of 'Erskine.'
Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose ‘Erskine’ premiered in 2013 in Bonn.

Turnage’s biggest claim to fame these days may be for his sensation-seeking opera Anna Nicole, but he has also been diligently at work for years trying to come up with viable fusions of classical music and jazz and often succeeding. “Erskine” is drummer Peter Erskine, Turnage’s partner-in-crime in many of these fusions, and a bonafide jazz master best known for propelling the electric jazz-rock band Weather Report for a number of years.

First heard in Bonn, Germany, last year, Erskine is laid out in four movements, each affixed with a particular form in its title (“Maya and Taichi’s Stomp,” “Mutsy’s Habanera,” “Erskine’s Blues,” “Fugal Frenzy”) and lasting about half an hour. Knowing Erskine the drummer, you knew this thing was gonna swing – and knowing Turnage the composer, you knew there were going to be some knotty passages that would make no concessions to the picnicking audience. That’s pretty much what transpired.

Drummer Peter Erskine, inspiration for Turnage's piece.
Drummer Peter Erskine, inspiration for Turnage’s piece.

In hopping around from style to style, Turnage nevertheless imposed a kind of unity onto the piece with threads of troubled angst and occasional sleaze. It also helped to have a commanding drummer setting the grooves and keeping the immense orchestral apparatus on track. The “blues” movement was not a formal blues per se, but the music had the blues, if that makes sense – and the last movement opened with a thunderous contrapuntal drum workout for Erskine and three Philharmonic percussionists.

Erskine was also given plenty of room for improvised cadenzas (a.k.a. drum solos in the jazz and rock worlds) in which he wielded his sticks, brushes, and mallets like a painter, making the passages far more coherent, subtle, and swinging than your average show-off drummer might. Tovey and the Philharmonic seemed to keep things together, though it was hard to tell upon a first hearing whether the orchestra was able to negotiate the squiggles of fugues in the last movement accurately on short rehearsal time.

The “sure thing” of the evening was Holst’s The Planets – very much at home outdoors, of course, and made more so by a film, The Planets – An HD Odyssey, that was synchronized with the performance on giant video screens all over the Bowl.

Jupiter and Io, ready for close-up. (Duncan Copp and NASA-JPL)
Jupiter and Io, ready for their close-up. (© Duncan Copp-NASA-JPL)

It’s possible that Holst himself – having made astrology, not astronomy, the piece’s motivating philosophy – might not have approved of having images of the real planets shown alongside his music. Yet Duncan Copp’s film, originally made for the Houston Symphony with photos from NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as computer-generated graphics, was capable of combining with the music to make a stunning impact, particularly when the menacing Mars march (below) reaches its first climax just as we find ourselves on the planet’s surface for the first time. Sometimes, when the sequence of images didn’t seem to follow the music (the last part of Saturn, for example), you had to make a disconnect, but the combination was mostly captivating.

Tovey’s conception was squarely in the British Planets tradition as set down by Sir Adrian Boult – taking a slow, relentless tempo in Mars, not rushing Saturn or Uranus, letting Neptune drift mystically into deep space. It’s still a valid concept, and Tovey made it work with satisfying dignity and vigor. The last time I heard the Philharmonic perform The Planets (albeit indoors), the women of the Pacific Chorale made an abrupt cut-off in the final bars of Neptune, but this time (perhaps with help from the sound booth?), they faded smoothly into silence. Under a full moon, with the cold-blue planet fading from view on the big screens –well, you had to be there.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.