Music fans whose passions lie outside the classical realm may have the impression that every time a world class orchestra puts on a work by a major composer, it’s a serious affair best appreciated by those who have a longstanding familiarity with the genre and its centuries of powerful history. While that holds true for most of the presentations on the slate every summer at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s worth noting that there are always a few wonderful outliers that offer a fun, whimsical open door to even the most uninitiated.
By design and intention, “Carnival of the Animals” by 19th Century French composer Camille Saint-Saens is quite literally, a different animal. A prime example of his gift for musical characterization and satire, he created it for a private Mardi Gras party in 1886. A suite of 14 brief, impressionistic movements each representing a different animal, it was originally written for private performance by an ensemble of two pianos and other instruments. Every piece is brief, to the point and varied in tempo, dynamics, intensity, emotion and percussive thrust just as its inspirations are.
Under the direction of Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, the L.A. Philharmonic – fronted by the facing side by side pianos of globally acclaimed French born sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque – created a dramatic, flourish filled instrumental equivalent of a brisk 25- minute trip to the zoo or a wild animal park.
Along the way, we met lions (“Royal March of the Lion”), “Hens and Roosters” (with pecking simulated by playful string accents), “Wild Donkeys” (featuring fast piano flurries), “Tortoises” (slow and measured chording, naturally), “Elephants” (with percussive, stomping piano and a low toned cello quarter), graceful, hopping “Kangaroos,” and “The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods.” The cuckoo piece and “Aviary” simulated the sounds of their subjects with quickly fluttering flutes. Amidst the whimsy were caressing moments of gentle grace in the elegant fluidity of the “Aquarium” segment and the dreamy, ballet like beauty of the suite’s true showstopper, “Swan.”
Anyone who picked up a program beforehand knew the presentation of “Carnival of the Animals” was not going to be classical business as usual. Tucked into the magazine was an inset announcing Emmy winning comic actor Sean Hayes (of “Will & Grace”) as the “narrator.” From his emergence from a cage to start the show to the effortless spontaneity and hilarity of his between pieces anecdotes, he made the presentation lighthearted throughout – and ensured that we could enjoy the wildlife without taking it too seriously.
The most surprising of Hayes’ musical comedy moments was during the practicing their scales “Pianists” piece, when he booted one of the sisters from her stool and took over the ivories – to dramatic and exaggerated comical effect (complete with guzzling water and squeezing out a “sweat rag”). He then stepped up to the conductor’s space and tried to take over the orchestra.
After the intermission, the L.A. Phil artfully and engagingly presented the much more conventional Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. With the animals and Hayes long gone, it was magical and amazing for what it was, but not nearly as much fun.