After what has been a mostly so-so summer — at least as regards the Tuesday/Thursday classical series — the level of music-making at the Hollywood Bowl moved up several notches as music director Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to his podium to remind his L.A. Philharmonic what a fine orchestra it can sometimes be. Programs for his four concerts — two last week and two this — offer a preview (or dress rehearsal, if you prefer) of music Salonen and the orchestra will perform on a brief jaunt through Britain and Germany starting next week.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Budapest-based Hungarian Festival Orchestra, alongside the resident Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, will supply the music and fireworks until the Bowl season ends on Sept. 18.
Tuesday’s program honored composers from Salonen’s original and adopted homelands: Finland’s Jan Sibelius and America’s Aaron Copland — the latter in his cheeky “El salon Mexico” that actually honors musical styles from yet a third nation.
Sibelius, Salonen has said, serves younger generations of Finnish musicians as both emblem and albatross, the first (and, for generations, only) composer of his nation to achieve recognition beyond his native land. Perhaps Sibelius’ lush, atmospheric symphonies and tone-poems have little to do with the hard-edged works of today’s remarkable group of young Finnish composers — Salonen among them, along with Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho — but his music remains popular.
Salonen’s continued homage to his musical ancestor is clearly more than mere duty. Early in the evening, to be sure, both conductor and soloist, 30-year-old baby-faced American violinist Joshua Bell, exhibited understandable disinterest in the show-off measures of the Violin Concerto; the performance (and the work itself) can best be described as a slog. After intermission, however, conductor and composer came into their own in the four Sibelius “Legends,” tone-poems inspired by Finland’s epic “Kalevala,” dispatched with full regard for the music’s dark, smoky earth-hues, and with Carolyn Hove’s solo English horn resounding like a voice from another planet.
Salonen’s explorations into the classic American repertory so far have been, let’s say, cautious. Without capturing all of the music’s engaging fund of the down ‘n’ dirty, he drew some mighty sounds from the orchestra in Copland’s colorful south-of-the-border excursion of 1936, enough to draw a cheer or two from the attendant small but responsive crowd of 5,086.