Leonard Slatkin served as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl from 2005-07, bringing some fresh ideas on how to assemble Bowl programs. He came back for a brief visit Tuesday night with one more brainstorm — pairing Edward Elgar, symbol of the British Empire, with Philip Glass, the iconoclastic American who helped break the grip of the Twelve-Tone Empire that once had a stranglehold on the definition of progress in music. As mischievous as it seemed on paper, the idea worked.
Actually, Glass in the Bowl makes a lot of sense, for the relaxed, after-dinner atmosphere is very conducive to the state of suspended meditation or ecstasy that his music can create when served carefully.
He is a maddeningly inconsistent composer, probably because he is so prolific, but when he comes up with good material to cycle and recycle, Glass can surprise you with his power.
Glass’ Violin Concerto, which seemed like an innocuous entry into the symphonic world upon its release in 1987, has worn amazingly well since — particularly the lyrical second movement. Slatkin figured out how to make the piece work even better — playing it straight and relatively fast, having the rhetoric sweep in a rush through the central section of the slow movement, heightening the dynamic contrasts in the finale. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour displayed a good sound for Glass — a clean, modern, unsentimental tone — but not without injections of heart and virtuoso flash.
Underneath Glass’s mostly peaceful, contemplative pair of interludes from act five of “the CIVIL warS” lay a rancorous local story — the cancellation of that entire Robert Wilson theater piece during the Olympic Arts Festival here 24 years ago. We’ll probably never see it whole, and these interludes barely gave a clue of what this massive, beached whale of a piece was about.
As for Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, Slatkin unleashed his inner Anglophile and gave it a tremendous performance. The boisterous variations thundered and rolled — and the magisterial ones developed with a natural, unforced, broad sense of nobility.
Although the attendance count was low (6,068), Glass seemed to bring out a younger crowd than usual for a Classical Tuesday concert; the Virgin Megastore tent on the grounds ran out of Glass CDs by intermission.