Two days before the end of the Hollywood Bowl's classical music season, Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot and the Los Angeles Philharmonic warmed up a small crowd with a short program of romantic French classics. In the best Tinseltown tradition, perhaps on orders from Bowl management, the music played out as an almost full moon rose through dramatically-backlit clouds, and a cozy chill made for couples nuzzling in the night air.

Gautier Capuçon © Gregory Batardon
Gautier Capuçon
© Gregory Batardon

Morlot and a Philharmonic stocked with 18 substitutes excelled in two of Ravel's big set pieces, Rapsodie espagnole and La Valse. In both pieces, the orchestra muted its normal Technicolor palette into something more perfumed and wafted, allowed their passions to surge but lightly, like moonlight shimmering on a lake through haze, and achieved on occasion as much hushed, miraculous intensity as is possible in their anti-audiophile amphitheater. 

Morlot throughout made a graceful, willing partner to the Philharmonic's strings in becoming lost, with figuratively closed eyes and sensuous, sophisticated sweep, in the intimacy of the dancing. The woodwinds, meanwhile, played like they were riffing in a classical music club late at night; the pairs of gurgling clarinets and chortling bassoons in the Rapsodie were a particular delight, and Christine Massey Warren fully haunted the English horn solo. In La Valse, which ended the evening, despite continued magnificent playing, the Gallic spirit was less profound. 

The soloist for the night was Gautier Capuçon, no longer merely the younger brother of the violin-playing Laurent, but a major soloist on his own. Brandishing his highly-polished Matteo Goffriller cello, made in Venice in 1701, Capuçon braved not only the fiendishly exposed technical challenges of Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto no. 1 but temperatures dipping into the frigid (by Southern California standards) 50s, which notoriously through the years has posed problems to both soloists and their instruments.

Shown up close on the giant video screens flanking the stage for all to see, Capuçon and his Three Musketeers charisma, with Morlot and the Philharmonic willing accomplices, let himself go fully at the music's emotional dimensions and hedonistic beauties, impulsively inserting surges of speed and energy at transition points where less adventurous cellists often pull up for fear of losing self-control; he was ragged at spots as a result, but it hardly impeded the music's crowd-pleasing progress. 

Even in the best of circumstances, however, the Saint-Saëns is a tough piece to balance, and especially so outdoors at the Bowl, where the soloist is competing with the onstage orchestra behind him, the flanking video screens and the huge banks of vertical loudspeaker strips overhead amplifying the sound to the amphitheater's farthest, and on this night largely empty reaches. But the audience was on Capuçon's side from his first daring entrance, and when Morlot stepped on the brakes at the end to properly frame and set up the soloist's final bravura phrase, they made as much noise as they could on a cold night with no amplification system of their own.

They were aptly rewarded when, after only a nano-pause, Capuçon serenaded them with the iconic "Méditation" from Jules Massenet's opera Thaïs, tossing off the filigrees of its melody with an appropriately dreamy sense of sexy spirituality and soulful grace.

The evening had begun with a graceful reading of Fauré's Masques et bergamasques in which the performers, warming up to their task, were occasionally as restless as the newcomers arriving late to their seats.