It was a night that didn't augur well for those Hollywood Bowl patrons seeking the usual symphonic serenade under starlight. Los Angeles, on Thursday night, was seized by a sudden heat wave that was accompanied with stifling humidity more fitting for Manila or Saigon than the Hollywood Hills. Grey clouds looming on the horizon, which grew and dissipated as the day progressed, swelled and darkened as the sun set. Later they tore open with a downpour that caused many in the audience to flee for the exits, soaking those not lucky enough to come prepared with ponchos.

Hollywood Bowl Shell © Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
Hollywood Bowl Shell
© Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

But none of this seemed to worry the unflappable Leonard Slatkin, the Detroit Symphony’s current music director and respected worldwide for his tenures at the helm of the St. Louis Symphony and National Symphony Orchestras. Slatkin, a Los Angeles native whose father, Felix, often appeared at the podium at the Hollywood Bowl, is no stranger to the sometimes fickle California summer weather.

Starting with the Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber by Paul Hindemith, a composer Slatkin said at the start of the concert that he hoped to start a “mini revival” for, defined the conductor’s trajectory for the rest of the program. Cool, controlled, straightforward, and elegant, if (meteorological pun unintended) dry. Not that Hindemith’s music requires that a conductor invest in it the same expression as they would with a Mahler or Tchaikovsky work. But the Symphonic Metamorphosis is as close as Hindemith ever got in his maturity to relaxing his usual steely control of his musical language, giving the conductor and orchestra opportunity to wallow and revel in its dazzling orchestration and musical invention.

Instead, what audiences heard was thoroughly professional Hindemith. Flair and excitement need not apply. Not bad, but nothing to treasure in one’s memory either. The score’s more special moments, like the second movement’s spiky, jazzy fugue à la Stan Kenton, fell flat, creating an overall dullness of expression contrary to the score’s extrovert tendencies.

The same problems marred Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2, which had Slatkin joined by British violinist Daniel Hope as soloist. His last major work before his return to the Soviet Union, the concerto is Prokofiev, at once, at his most lyrical and his most boisterous. Yet Hope’s wiry, edgy sound and Slatkin’s pedestrian approach sapped much of the music’s melodic richness. The composer’s long-breathed, ripe melodies require a soloist with a more vocal—almost bel canto—lyricism: qualities lacking in Hope. Prokofiev’s not so tongue-in-cheek tribute to Rachmaninov in the slow movement found Hope rather like an actor who merely reads his lines rather than actually becoming the character he means to portray. He seemed more at home in the concerto’s goofy finale, where he leaned heavily into the sarcastic tang of the music.

A sleek and polished rendition of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no. 3 followed, with the Philharmonic’s keyboardist, Joanne Pearce Martin, at the Bowl’s console organ. If Slatkin delivered no surprises, neither did he get in the way of the music. The first movement progressed with stout inevitability, leading into a slow movement that glowed warmly, but was never maudlin. The scherzo was crisply accentuated; finale grand, with the coda unfurled without being pushed.

However, the Bowl’s console organ unwittingly lent a touch of humor to Saint-Saëns’ gothic by way of belle époque grandeur. Listening to the slow movement, the console whining away, it was hard to not imagine the music serving as a backdrop for a crowd of blue hairs nodding off in their pews, their pastor’s sermon intoning gravely over their dozing heads. Even in its most noble moments, the instrument couldn’t help give the Hollywood Bowl a whiff of Chavez Ravine.

And what of Slatkin at the bat? A bunt, not a home run.