Fine-tuned communications skills, a keen sense of humor and a willingness to entertain have become desirable qualities for conductors at the Hollywood Bowl, and Bramwell Tovey, the new principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Bowl, has these qualities to burn. The British-born Tovey is proving to be quite a character; when a rare sprinkling of rain pelted the crowd during the first selection, he quipped, “I could have stayed in Manchester for this!” Tovey does not talk down to his audience; along with the jokes and borderline-risque allusions, he offered some solid, relevant, easily absorbed information about the music at hand.
Also, Tovey is a rather unusual musician — a jazz pianist on the side and an interesting composer, not unlike Andre Previn. He gave us a peek at his other sides in his new composition “Urban Runway” — an L.A. Phil/New York Phil co-commission. This mostly entertaining, madcap collage of jazzy and Latin-American blocks of rhythm is based upon his impressions of fashion plates strutting down Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive and New York’s Fifth Avenue.
Yet most important for his new job, Tovey is a marvelous conductor — bringing to the table clear ideas on what he wants and how to get an orchestra to play. In Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan,” the tempos were right on the dot, the love music treated rapturously, the orchestral response scintillating.
Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” — the source of many a steal for today’s film composers — sizzled and swung with genuine excitability, clarity, fire and, in Part One, some daring stretching of the fabric.
Baritone Eugene Chan, 24, a last-minute substitute from San Francisco Opera’s Merola program, displayed an extraordinary range of timbres and expression, and soprano Cyndia Sieden sweetly nailed her treacherous high-register cadenza. Tovey was a bit coy in revealing to the audience what “Carmina” is really about, but the projections of the racy text on the video screens said it all.