The Hollywood Bowl’s annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular with Fireworks” has become, along with Labor Day, something of a marker denoting the unofficial end of summer in Los Angeles. When bidding farewell to summer, one may as well do so with a bang—in this case both figuratively and literally. Tchaikovsky. Fireworks. A better way to fill up all the rows of seating at Hollywood Bowl has yet to be devised. And fill those seats they did—over 16,000 music lovers converging onto the Bowl last Saturday night. It’s safe to say that a great part of the audience, if not the majority of it, were there not so much for Tchaikovsky, but for the spectacle of the whole thing. They’re there for the “Hollywood Bowl experience”. So at that point, probably the easiest thing would have been to phone in a performance of Tchaikovsky, set off some sparklers, and then pack up and zip home, assured that at least a great part of the audience came away satisfied regardless. Perhaps. But conductor Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic aren’t the kind to sit on their laurels. Spectacle and thrilling music—the Hollywood Bowl audience had it all.

Fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl © Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
Fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl
© Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

First there is Tovey himself. Musicians who attempt to engage their audience by speaking to them from the stage seems to be popular these days. But a talented musician doesn’t necessarily make for a talented speaker on their art. Tovey, however, is that rare find: an excellent musician who is equally gifted in his ability to talk about his conducting. He is not only informative and eloquent, but enlivens his discourse with a breezy, naughty wit that makes anything he says deeply interesting. Whether he was talking about the genesis of the 1812 Overture, or his sly Freudian slips in a retelling of the Swan Lake plot, the audience was completely in his thrall.

Ensnared by his charm, he reeled his listeners in with interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s music that swelled with dramatic ardor, and glowed with classy polish. Excerpts from The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, as well as a crackling, grandiose rendition of the deathless 1812 Overture, had the audience roaring with excitement.

The Nutcracker bobbed about with lilting rhythm; glittered brilliantly with the full force of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral mastery. From the score, Tovey lovingly held detail after detail in the orchestration up to the light, yet never at the expense of flow. Joining the performance were the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, who lent their airy voices to the “Waltz of the Snowflakes”. This was a suave, dapper rendering of the composer’s final ballet.

If Tovey’s Nutcracker was smooth, his treatment of excerpts from Swan Lake was rich with dark mystery and foreboding. To that he added a fine sense of pacing with a bouncy rhythmic spring that made it nearly irresistible to twirl away in one’s seat. However, in case one was afraid of looking silly pulling a pirouette in the boxes near the stage, the Bowl provided dancers from the American Ballet Theatre to allow one to fulfill those desires vicariously.

The grand finale, the 1812 Overture—with fireworks—was, under Tovey’s baton, made grander still. Even Tchaikovsky cocked a cynical sneer at this work, dismissing it as mere jobbery. Tovey and the Philharmonic weren’t about to fall for that, though. Instead they treated the audience to an interpretation of the piece that was equal parts fire and dignity. Though fire won out the day at the coda with the massive racket, the performers, along with their guests the USC Trojan Marching Band, ensured the Bowl was alight under the brilliance of the fireworks display.

Miking and amplification can be tricky at the Bowl. Sometimes the engineers get it right. Then sometimes, like last Saturday, they don’t. Levels were set higher than usual, meaning parts such as the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus were glaring and harsh. Tovey quipped during the concert about the coda of the 1812 being louder than an Iron Maiden concert. He wasn’t kidding. Even Steve Harris and his boys would have been hard pressed to get themselves heard over the onslaught of Tchaikovskian heavy metal.

Nonetheless, the concert was a delight; a showcase of the versatility of both orchestra and conductor. It’s concerts like these that make one regret how short summers are. The days of backyard barbecues, long summer days, trips to the beach, and concerts led by Bramwell Tovey are too few indeed.

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