OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil, Lang Lang open Hollywood Bowl’s classical season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

It’s been more than a decade since we first encountered conductor Gustavo Dudamel and pianist Lang Lang. Two of the more interesting aspects of hearing them together in concert last night at Hollywood Bowl were (a) how they together would fare as a box-office draw and (b) how they have matured in the past 10 or so years.

They came together in that most ubiquitous of Bowl pieces: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which along with another favorite, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, opened the Bowl’s 10-week classical season.

First the crowd: although no official count was released, the Bowl appeared to be very full, (13,000-14,000?) especially for a Tuesday night. Those who came definitely got their money’s worth!

Perhaps it’s because we’ve gotten used to Lang Lang’s performing antics, but last night was notably light on over-the-top flourishes. Nonetheless it was a performance that had most of the audience spellbound and made us consider carefully what we were hearing, no mean feat for those who have heard this piece hundreds of times.

Dudamel (who conducted without a score) and the Phil held the proceedings together with a sure hand. He took magisterial tempos in the first movement while Lang Lang provided a breathtakingly wide range of dynamics and used the cadenza-like sections to stretch the tempos to (but not beyond) the breaking point. The pianist also appeared to interpolate his own thoughts into the cadenzas, again just enough to make us sit up and ask ourselves, “Did we just hear that?”

By comparison, the second the third movements emerged in relatively straightforward manners, apart from Lang Lang’s lighting-fast tempos in the final sections of each. The finale concluded with a Niagara Falls-like waterfall of thunderous octaves that had Dudamel and the orchestra hanging on for the wild ride. It also produced the predicatable standing ovation from the audience but there were no encores.

After intermission, Dudamel and the Phil offered a rich, luxurious rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Here was a good chance to see the increasingly mature Dudamel, who led tempos that were unhurried and allowed for the orchestra as a whole and the individual section principals to shine with jewel-like luminescence.

Dudamel continues to be a joy to watch on the podium; in fact, there were times when I wished the video screens were split so we could keep a constant eye on the now 35-year old maestro. He conducted without a score; he continues to be economical in his gestures, with almost no superfluous motions; he still takes bows from deep within the ensemble, surrounded by his colleagues; and, most importantly, he continues to radiate a genuine joy in making music.

Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour was radiant in his solos depicting the Arabian princess spinning her tales, but kudos also to (among many) Principal Cellist Robert deMaine, harpist Lou Anne Neill, Associate Principal Oboe Marion Arthur Kuszyk and Principal Flute Dennis Bouriakov.

Overall, this was one of the most satisfying performances of this work that I have ever heard and a splendid way to begin the summer Bowl season.

• With flags at half staff, Dudamel and Co. opened the evening with a somber performance of The Star-Spangled Banner.
• Very good camera work for the most part, the sound system was in fine form, especially considering that this was the first classical concert of the season, and there were minimal aerial intrusions. You can’t ask for much more than that at a Bowl concert.
• The video screens included the numbers and titles of each piece’s movements, which was particularly helpful in the dark ambience of the Bowl’s seats.
• Whether it was the stage lighting or just a sign of age, Dudamel appears to now have touches of gray in his hair.
• Tomorrow night and next Tuesday Dudamel and the Phil present a concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a work embedded into Dudamel’s DNA. It was with the “Mambo” portion of “WSS” that Dudamel burst onto the scene with his Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Lucerne Festival and the London Proms in 2007 (LINK).

The two Bowl West Side Story performances are being billed as “concert performances,” with a cast of 12 soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale joining with Dudamel and the LAPO. Although some will miss Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking dance sequences, the concert performance will put the emphasis squarely on the music, instead. Solea Pfeiffer, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, will portray Maria and Jeremy Jordan, a Tony and Grammy-nominated actor and singer, will sing the role of Tony. A link to Catherine Womack’s Q&A with Pfeiffer in the Los Angeles Times is HERE. (INFO)

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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