Bramwell Tovey, the principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Hollywood Bowl concerts, is no stranger to the venue, though his ability to give a freshly minted polish to everything he conducts makes his appearances seem all too infrequent.

Bramwell Tovey © David Cooper
Bramwell Tovey
© David Cooper

His musicianship is subtle, but the results can be eye-opening – and they’re always deeply satisfying. There is in Tovey an uncanny knack at being able to shade a particular passage, or turn a melody that can make it sound as if the ink were still fresh; a quality that looks back to an older school of British conductors, particularly the likes of Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Hamilton Harty.

Tovey’s take on Jean Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5 was a choice example. The Finn’s blocks of sounds can sometimes take on a leaden weight in many contemporary conductors’ hands, sometimes to the point of being lugubrious. But Sibelius’ music often expresses the composer’s awe at the world of natural beauty that surrounded him, as well as his delight in quietly subverting symphonic form, creating a body of work that is craggier and weirder than we like to think. Under Tovey’s baton, the orchestra conjured a muscular, lithe, and exciting Sibelius; sometimes exhibiting an inpetuousness that brought to mind the composer’s contemporary Carl Nielsen. The broad vistas of the opening movement unfurled with dignified beauty, but never turned morose or brooding. In the finale, his energy at times seemed to be Bernstein-like, but he allowed the horns to glow splendidly in the wistful and strangely mournful “swan” triplets that eventually crown the movement.

The German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser preceded the Sibelius in Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, imbuing the score with a life and fire that defies the convention of the piece as the work of a broken man. His output may have lessened, though the music he produced – with the late, incomplete Symphony no. 3 foremost – remained of the highest quality, with the composer at times turning to new and uncharacteristic byways. Moser gave a performance that glossed the music with a patina of cool, patrician sheen, though he could open up and be tenderly expressive at critical points in the score. Tovey remained in the background; providing plenty of room for his soloist to stretch out without imposing himself unduly. It was Moser’s show and he was superb in the spotlight.

Opening the concert was Benjamin Britten’s An American Overture, a commission for Artur Rodzinski and The Cleveland Orchestra that somehow got lost and wasn’t found again until near the end of the composer’s life. Britten dismissed the score and attempted to suppress it. Good thing he didn’t succeed. Why the composer wanted to hide this work away is anybody’s guess. It’s a brilliant curtain raiser, reflective and exhuberant by turns. There isn’t anything particularly “American” about the score. (It’s original name was “An Occasional Overture”, though musicologists gave it its present name to differentiate it from another Britten work that already bore the same name.)

Again, Tovey brought sparkle and shine to the piece, giving it a lilt that played well to the score’s breezy optimism. The woodwinds, particularly the oboes at the work’s start, were, as ever, superb.

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