Hollywood Bowl opening nights tend to be a mishmash of this and that, a something-for-everybody affair that by definition satisfies few. Yet the ninth edition of this ritual — held on a beastly hot Friday night — was a cut above some of the others thanks to stage-savvy headliners who made the most of their brief showcases. The most amazing spectacle of the night — which I doubt we will ever see again — materialized at the end when Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame inductees James Galway and B.B. King jammed with rock guitar pioneer Duane Eddy on the theme from “Peter Gunn” as another inductee, Liza Minnelli, jiggled alongside and fireworks blew up the sky. Believe it or not, it worked.
Galway’s induction was a timely reminder that 30 years ago almost to the week, the flutist from Belfast made his American debut on this stage — and from that point, his international solo career took off.
Galway’s playing has become even more subtle, searching and flexible in the opening movement of Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2, and he still brandishes the pixie-like wit with which he captivated his audience then. He also tootled an Irish jig on an upscale-looking penny-whistle and played “Galway Fair” with wife Jeanne and 30 young flutists from the L.A. Philharmonic’s Music Matters program (the concert was a benefit for the latter).
B.B. King was as humble as ever in his remarks, after which he tore everyone up with “Every Day (I Have the Blues),” “The Thrill Is Gone” and that hilarious ode to co-dependency, “How Blue Can You Get?”
His vocal delivery was more ferocious than it has been in years; his guitar work was more jagged and more succinct, continuing his experiments with mellow feedback for musical ends. In other words, he’s still growing in his 80s.
Eddy was an authentic, bracing blast from the past, performing a kicking, note-for-note “Rebel Rouser” — simplicity itself, and wonderful. Minnelli still exerts enough febrile energy to light up a Las Vegas hotel, but she drove her voice way beyond its limits on this hot night, seemingly gasping for breath. She and four male singers devoted most of the set to a showbizzy re-creation of her godmother Kay Thompson’s late-’40s nightclub act with the Williams Brothers.
Almost overlooked in this stream of star power was the debut of personable Thomas Wilkins as principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He led a capable rendition of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and accompanied Galway lightly in Mozart. Yet his genial personality — very different from that of his sardonic predecessor, John Mauceri — and intuitive understanding of what the Bowl is about had little room to bloom. Watch him later in the season.