Bowl’d over: New York Philharmonic brings rare pops concert to the Bowl

 Conducter Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in an all-American program at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Monday. Michael Moriatis/News-Press

Conducter Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in an all-American program at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Monday.
Michael Moriatis/News-Press

The Santa Barbara Bowl has rarely seen a full orchestra on its stage, although Monday night’s visit by the New York Philharmonic proved it can not only fit everybody, but the sound – at least for those not up in the gods- was excellent. Why don’t we do this more often?

That just might be the plan with this event that was arranged through Music Academy of the West, which is the first in the NY Phil’s Global Academy initiative. Maestro Alan Gilbert, since taking over the baton at the New York Philharmonic in 2009, has set about reshaping the orchestra for the 21st century. During his tenure, which will be up in 2017 as per his contract, he’s dusted off what was regarded as a stuffy institution and introduced an element of play. He’s reintroduced audiences to composers like Charles Ives, who still may be too radical for the subscriber base.

The New York Philharmonic's performance included Aaron Copland's epic masterpiece "Appalachian Spring" and Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story."
The New York Philharmonic’s performance included Aaron Copland’s epic masterpiece “Appalachian Spring” and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”
Working with the Music Academy of the West, who can count 12 alumni in the orchestra, these new kinds of outreach concerts help spread the reputations of both institutions, so expect more in the future. Word of mouth and low ticket prices – $10 for the cheap seats – led to a full house, and there was not an electric guitar in sight. Lighting was minimal, but evocative, and instead of the usual tuxes, Mr. Gilbert and his orchestra opted for the summery creme look.

Concerts such as these tend toward the pops side of things, and seeing Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on the program, along with “West Side Story” and George Gershwin, indicated such a night.

Mr. Gilbert’s selection was also a bit of an education, first into modern music, and then into lesser known works and composers, just a little bit of boundary pushing.

Mr. Gilbert spoke in between works, and introduced the evening, mentioning our “paradise of a city,” the new partnership with Music Academy, and how we have the “nicest bowl in Southern California.”

The Philharmonic opened with Samuel Barber’s overture from “The School for Scandal,” a brightly colored work that the composer wrote as his graduation piece at the Curtis Institute in 1931. It”s not a student work, but it is youthful, Barber throwing in all sorts of tonal and dynamic shifts, and trying on every section and instrument for size. This is modern music one can live with, and Mr. Gilbert conducted accordingly, lively at the podium moving shapes and sounds around, embodying the different colors of the work.

Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” has that stirring opening section, one that smells of hay and leather and sunlight, but it”s easy to forget that most of the piece is the opposite. Dreamy textures, a slowly setting sun, night creatures awakening, the orchestra so quiet at points that we could hear the birds in the nearby trees and the mumble of the beer line below.

Mr. Gilbert introduced singers Julia Bullock and Ben Bliss for the selection of four songs from “West Side Story,” Ms. Bullock being the more “operatic” of the two, but also the one who could claim that she’s recorded the role, 2013, with the San Francisco Symphony.

After the intermission, the second half was devoted to shorter works. We got two Sousa marches – “The Washington Post” and as an encore “The Stars and Stripes,” and these sounded as good as any Sousa composition is going to get, stirring and complex, and the audience just loved, loved, loved the piccolo section that popped up to repeat the theme. (Note to the Music Academy: look for piccolo sonatas.)

George Gershwin’s “Lullaby for String Orchestra” was a rare treat, hints of Gershwin’s more famous works peeking out between the sheets. Richard Rodgers’s “The Carousel Waltz” was a bit too cloying in this context, all icing and no cake; but Leroy Anderson’s comical miniature “Fiddle Faddle” is the kind of work that used to be an essential part of mid-century pops concerts . . . and were written as such. Both Anderson and that kind of work is crying out for a re-evaluation, and Mr. Gilbert, with his time left, is the kind of man to do so.

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