The Los Angeles Philharmonic presented an entertaining evening of Russian music at the Hollywood Bowl on August 20th. The orchestra was joined by actor John C. Reilly and the puppet-based troupe Blind Summit Theatre for the program’s featured piece, a witty staging of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Conductor Ludovic Morlot ably filled in for Bramwell Tovey, who is battling cancer and had to withdraw. The concert also featured pieces by Tchaikovsky, Borodin and, as a change that came in with Maestro Morlot, Stravinsky.
The performance began with the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty, Morlot’s graceful direction of the piece’s sinuous melodies showing right away that the Philharmonic was in good hands. Rielly came out next and, as is standard, introduced Peter and the Wolf and its central musical conceit, that the libretto is a children’s tale in which each of the characters a represented by a particular instrument or group thereof. Where he deviated somewhat was in making explicit, albeit lightheartedly, the work’s history and original intentions as a work of Soviet propaganda from the 1930s, the composer’s first commission upon return to his homeland from abroad. Director Mark Down would slyly undeline this with visual clues in the production–portraying the Grandfather as a fat Cossack, charting Peter’s virtues as a good Soviet boy as he planned the capture of the Wolf, and placing a sign reading “Capitalist” on the vanquished canine.
While the Tchaikovsky (and the Stravinsky to come) were originally written for dance but performed as concert music, Blind Summit flipped the script on the Prokofiev and added a ballet to it. The piece, with its cast of animal characters and Russian folk inspired score, took to Daniel Hay Gordon’s choreography like a fish to water–or, to use a cue from the stage direction, a duck to the Pool Circle; the cast, including a giant wooden puppet of Peter that took three performers to operate, delighted the crowd by extending the action from the stage to the seats in the lower bowl.
The Philharmonic came back from intermission with Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. Borodin is beat remembered as one of the “Mighty Five” composers who helped established Russia’s distinct national identity in classical music, and the powerful Slavonic melodies of Steppes made testament to this stature. By contrast, the suite from Pulcinella that capped off the evening showcased the emigre Stravinsky having fun playing with the forms of western and central Europe, beginning with the baroque Sinfonia that introduced it and following through into the Tarantella and other movements, though the influence of sounds from his homeland were discernible in the crescendos of the Finale. It was an enjoyable program perfect for a summer night, and we wish Maestro Tovey a full recovery.