OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, the Phil and dancers perform Tchaikovsky at the Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Every concert at Hollywood Bowl involves a roll of the dice because elements not present at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s indoor home, Walt Disney Concert Hall, often intrude at the Phil’s venerable outdoor venue. These vagaries include — among other things — weather, limited rehearsal time, adjusting to guest conductors quickly, aerial intrusions, and amplification.

Consider that latter element, for example. Thursday night I and others noted that the sound system, which has been mostly top-notch during the first four weeks of the Bowl’s classical programs, seemed out of sorts, distorting the brass sounds particularly. I wrote that this might have occurred, in part, because the orchestra seemed to be pushed farther back into the shell to accommodate the ballet floor installed for Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

However, last night — the first of two nights where dances from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake were the center point, figuratively if not actually, of the program and the orchestra was in the same location as Thursday — the sound system (and the folks operating same) were back to the high levels (pun intended) of the first eight concerts.

Friday’s high quality was undoubtedly aided by the fact that Gustavo Dudamel, the Phil’s music and artistic director, was back on the podium for his last program of the Bowl season. No offense to Ben Gernon, the British prize-winning conductor who makes the now-35-year-old Dudamel seem like a grizzled veteran, and who conducted a difficult program with aplomb Thursday night. It’s just that the Phil always elevates its playing another level when Dudamel bounces onto the podium — call it from A to A+.

Dudamel, of course, has Latin American music embedded in his DNA and is a Mahlerian of the highest order, but he seems to most enjoy conducting the music of Tchaikovsky. There’s a different swagger to Dudamel’s beats and gestures and his beaming smile is more infectious throughout the orchestra’s playing of this music, no matter the quality of the score.

This was immediately evident last night in Capriccio Italien, which opened the evening. Written in 1879 when Tchaikovsky was in Rome, the piece is a pastiche of Italian folk and carnival tunes with the composer’s sheen running throughout. Last night, the Phil’s strings ranged from crisply crackling incision to sweeping, lush tones, and the brass were beautifully burnished throughout the performance.

Dance has been center stage for each of the classical programs this week and last night it was Swan Lake that held that spot. In his program notes, Howard Posner wrote, “For more than a century Swan Lake has been the ballet, the source of the visual clichés that say ‘ballet’ to the non-ballet public.” Perhaps, although I think most Americans would vote for The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty for that role, in part because of Walt Disney’s movies Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty.

Nonetheless, even to non-ballet lovers (of which I am one), the dancing from four members of the American Ballet Theatre last night was mesmerizing, particularly the work of Hee Seo and Corey Stearns in the White Swan pas de duex in the first half, which reminded me of the sort of breathtaking moves we see during televised Olympic ice skating routines.

Gilliam Murphy and Alexandre Hammoudi were nearly as impressive in the Black Swan pas de deux in the post-intermission program, although — as with The Firebird Thursday night, I will leave it to others more versed in ballet to make definitive judgments about the quality of the four dancers.

It should also be noted that, as was the case Thursday night, the variable interior lighting in the Bowl shell (blue and red hues last night) provided different effects on the large video monitors to the side of the shell than we saw onstage, although the variance was not as pronounced as it was for The Firebird.

Dudamel and the orchestra accompanied skillfully. In particular Dudamel was noticeable (actually unnoticeable would be a better adjective) because of how little podium choreography he provided, leaving the focus on the dancers. The orchestra’s instrumental portions were exemplary.

The evening ended, of course, with the 1812 Overture, or as John Mangum noted in the printed program: The Year 1812, a Festival Overture to Mark the Consecration of the Cathedral of St. Stephen.

Although I was at the first “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts in 1969 (Zubin Mehta conducted), it’s been several years since last attended this program. The most obvious difference was that members of the USC Trojan Marching Band paraded out onto the curved back row of the first boxes (which was originally a reflecting pool) to play at the conclusion of the piece. Two band conductors synched admirably well with Dudamel, the sound was impressively balanced, and the pyrotechnics by Souza were — as always — impressively choreographed.

It could only happen at the Bowl, and a second performance takes place tonight.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• The second half (actually second 60%) of the season begins Tuesday and Thursday when early-music specialist Andrew Manze takes the Bowl podium. Tuesday’s concert is all-Mozart (INFO), while Thursday’s program pairs Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“Great C Major”) with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Francesco Piemontesi making his LAPO debut as soloist (INFO).
• Although the FAA seems to have done a good job getting the word out to fliers about avoiding the Bowl on concert nights (the giant crisscrossed search lights would be hard to miss), one obnoxious helicopter either hasn’t gotten the word, blithely ignores it, or doesn’t realize that helicopters are much louder than small planes. I’m glad I don’t live under his or her flight path!
• One other kvetch: people who are in the front rows of the stacked parking aisles need to remember that when they take an inordinately long time to reach their cars, that dalliance makes it very difficult for those behind them to leave (although last night’s auto choreography was impressive in its own right). Last night I definitively would gotten home faster if I had taken Metro (see my post from two weeks ago on this subject HERE).
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: A dazzling “Firebird” at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Firebird-Ravinia-595-Patrick-Gipson-RaviniaThe concluding scene from Handspring Puppet’s reimagination of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival. The dazzling production was performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night at Hollywood Bowl. Photo by Patrick Gipson.
• More information on the Firebird creative team is HERE.
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When most classical music lovers think of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, they think first of the three suites that Stravinsky extracted for orchestra, especially the 1919 version. Less heard is the complete 50-minute score, which Stravinsky composed for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with choreography by Michel Fokine.

But just as it’s virtually impossible to hear Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without seeing the movie Fantasia’s sequence of Mickey Mouse and his dancing brooms, it’s going to be hard for those of us at Hollywood Bowl last night to hear the full 50-minute Firebird score again without thinking of the riveting, dazzling production of dancers, gymnasts and larger-than-life-size puppets that Handspring Puppet Company — the firm that brought War Horse to life on Broadway — used to portray the mythical story.

Director Janni Younge and choreographer/puppet designer Jay Pather led the creative team. The program book listed more than two-dozen folks who worked on the show, plus a cast of 15 (Jackie Manyaapelo performed the key role of “The Seeker”). The Los Angeles Philharmonic was led by guest conductor and former Dudamel Fellow Ben Gernon, who was making his Bowl debut

Since comparatively few people (except for hardcore dance lovers) have every seen a performance of the Firebird ballet, the fact that Younge and Pather elected to shift the locale to contemporary South Africa probably made little, if any, difference to most of the audience’s appreciation of the gripping performance.

Indeed, there’s something to be said for simply sitting back and watching what transpired without trying to make any sense of either the original story or this revised version. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it — others more in the know on ballet can comment on this version’s veracity.

Actually what we saw were two productions: the one on stage and the one that appeared on the large-screen monitors adjacent to the shell. From where I was sitting, the video cameras bathed the performance in a deep blue hue, which meant that often the effect on screen was quite different than what we were seeing on stage. Moreover, if you happened to look over at the correct time, the monitors provided descriptions of each ensuing scene, not necessarily corresponding to the South African take on the story.

Firebird-and-Creature-350Suspended above the stage was a large white object that looked like a professional photographer’s light umbrella. Throughout the production, it was used as a scrim for various images and at the conclusion devolved into the Firebird (pictured left). The dancers/gymnasts whirled around the stage and manipulated the puppets with moves that reminded me of what we will see from the gymnastic floor exercises during the upcoming Olympic Games. In a week where dance is an integral part of each program, this one was the highlight.

Gernon and the Philharmonic delivered a strong performance of the score, which has been a LAPO staple since the days of the Phil’s Conductor Laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen. The orchestra appeared to be pushed farther back into the shell to accommodate the dancers, and whether it was because of that placement, the cool weather or other reasons, for the first time this summer the amplification verged on distorting the sound. A couple of obnoxious helicopters didn’t help things, either.

Those issues were also apparent in the first half of the program, which paired Debussy’s La Mer with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes — ask not what this had to do with The Firebird!

The opening section of La Mer seemed very choppy, more note by note than long swirling lines. At the beginning Gernon beat virtually every note, long and small, for an orchestra that knows this music quite well and didn’t need that sort of micro-managing. He seemed to relax from the second section on and the Britten performance was much more effective and evocative.

This Firebird production has been playing at U.S. outdoor festivals throughout the summer. It concludes next week with two performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. Too bad there wasn’t a second performance at the Bowl — it would have been worth seeing again.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Tonight and tomorrow night, LAPO Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel concludes his Bowl work for this summer by leading the annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts. In addition to the traditional 1812 Overture with the Bowl’s marvelous fireworks by Souza to conclude the program, Dudamel and the orchestra will be joined by four members of the American Ballet Theatre who will perform two pas de deux sequences from Swan Lake. The orchestra will also play instrumental portions from the ballet, along with Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. INFO
• Next Tuesday and Thursday, early-music specialist Andrew Manze takes the Bowl podium. The Tuesday concert is all-Mozart (INFO), while Thursday night’s program pairs Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“Great C Major”) with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Francesco Piemontesi making his LAPO debut as soloist (INFO).
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil offer evening of Tango-themed music

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Temperatures cooled off last night but the music making remained hot as Gustavo Dudamel began his final week this summer at Hollywood Bowl. A large, boisterous crowd was joined by at least one malodorous skunk in the venerable Cahuenga Pass amphiteatre. Several aerial intrusions — more than usual this summer — flew into the Bowl’s airspace (most, fortunately, at times when the orchestra was playing loudly). PBS was on hand to tape the proceedings for a future broadcast. The Bowl shell was bathed in rose and peach hues with alternating blue and green backgrounds. Nearly all of the first-chair players were back on stage. This was not your normal Bowl evening.

For the first of three programs this week infused by dance, Dudamel chose four works with the tango at their heart. The opening and closing works were by the Godfather of the Tango, Astor Piazzolla. In between were four familiar dance episodes from Estancia by Alberto Ginestera and the world premiere of a Concerto Guitar, subtitled Concierto de la Amistad (Concerto of Friendship) by Piazzolla’s friend and compatriot, Lalo Schifrin.

RomeroIn 1984 Schifrin — best known for his work in television and motion pictures — wrote a Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, which was premiered by Angel Romero (pictured left) and the LAPO under the baton of Neal Stulberg at the Bowl. Thirty-two years later, Schifrin has written another concerto for Romero in order, as Schifrin explained in John Henken’s program notes, “to continue our musical journey together.”

Alternating touching lyricism with moments of playfulness, the 30-minute long, three-movement works is an important addition to the guitar-concerto literature, among other things, giving orchestras something besides the “standard” works by Joaquín Rodrigo to program when they’re looking for guitar music.

Romero — who turns age 70 in two weeks and was wearing a highly colorful shirt — was riveted to the score but delivered a gentle, soulful rendition of the piece, aided by Dudamel and the Phil, with standout solo work from Principal Harp Lou Anne Neill and Carolyn Hove on English horn. Schifrin was on hand to join Romero and Dudamel with joyful hugs and to receive thunderous applause from the audience.

Lush strings began the evening opening Piazzolla’s Tangazo, with the full orchestra — including Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov, Oboeist Marion Arthur Kuszyk and Principal Horn Andrew Bain — beautifully filling in the texture later on. Ginestera’s Four Dances from Estancia — a Phil and Dudamel speciality since the Venezuelan-born maestro took over the Phil — provided conductor and ensemble chances strut their collective stuff.

The evening concluded La muerte del Angel, from a series of “Angel” pieces written by Piazolla in the 1960s. This piece was written as an elegy to the composer’s father, who died in a bicycle accident in Argentina in 1959.

Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon (“button accordion”) and several dancers from Tango Buenos Aires joined Dudamel and the Phil in a spirited rendition of this four-movement work, rounding out the evening on an emphatic high note.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Ben Gernon, who was a Dudamel Fellow during the 2013-2014 season and won the prestigious Nestlé and Salzburg Festival’s Young Conductor Award in 2013, returns to lead the Phil tomorrow night.

Continuing the week’s dance theme, the post-intermission work will be Stravinsky’s The Firebird, when Janni Younge and Jay Prather will use giant-sized puppets to reimagine the original 1910 ballet. Among other things, the setting has been shifted to contemporary South Africa and the production uses African dance forms.

Prior to intermission, Gernon leads the Phil in Debussy’s La Mer and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera, Peter Grimes. Much like Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Britten used these Interludes to allow for scene changes in his landmark opera. INFO

• On Friday and Saturday, Dudamel concludes his Bowl work for this summer by leading the annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts. In addition to the traditional 1812 Overture with the Bowl’s marvelous fireworks by Souza, Dudamel and the orchestra will be joined by four members of the American Ballet Theatre who will perform two pas de deux from Swan Lake. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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MUSIC NOTES: On Feinstein, classic movies, and “Tchaikovsky Spectaculars”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

• IF YOU’RE A FAN of Turner Classic Movies (as I am), you may have been surprised to see the guest host of TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” series at 5 p.m. (PDT) this month: Michael Feinstein, principal conductor of the Pasadena Pops orchestra, who introduces a different star each night (Wednesday is Bing Crosby). INFO

• FRIDAY AND SATURDAY nights mark the 48th edition of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” at the Hollywood Bowl. Actually, there have been more than 48. In 1931, Artur Rodzinski led the Phil in a program that was entitled “An All Tchaikovsky Concert.” The program back then was the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Symphony No. 6, Variations on a Rococo Theme, with Nicolai Ochi-Albi as soloist, and the 1812 Overture.

Fast forward to 1969 when Zubin Mehta led the first Bowl concert to be termed a “Tchaikovsky Spectacular.” The program was Marche Slave, Opus 31, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, Piano Concerto No. 1, with Mischa Dichter as soloist, and — of course — the 1812 Overture, with the 562nd California Air National Guard Band.

This year’s program — to be led by current LAPO Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel — features the Capriccio Italien, orchestral selections and two dance sequences fron Swan Lake, and the 1812, with the USC Trojan Marching Band joining forces with the Phil. One thing hasn’t changed in 48 years: the firework pyrotechnics are by the same firm, now called Souza.

BTW: This is the third program this week that relies on dance, following Tuesday night’s “Tango” program and Thursday’s concert featuring Stravinsky’s The Firebird. These are also Dudamel’s last Bowl programs for the season. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Michael Feinstein reprises “Sinatra Project” at L.A. Arboretum

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

FesinsteinMichael Feinstein performing the music of Frank Sinatra would seem to be a perfect fit. After all, Feinstein has made a career of curating, promoting and performing “The Great American Songbook” and no one belongs in that genre more than “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”

For the second consecutive year it was a perfect fit as Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops, led by its resident conductor, Larry Blank, presented “The Sinatra Project, Vol. 2” last night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

For the second consecutive year it also was boffo box office as a sold-out audience packed the tables and sprawled on the The Giant Lawn of the Arcadia facility.

As usual, Feinstein, the orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, mixed Sinatra favorites with pieces that had been unperformed for decades — or at all. Feinstein provided his typically erudite commentary, which was compact enough that the entire program clocked in at slightly more than just two hours, even allowing for CEO Laura Unger’s gushing thanks to the evening’s sponsors and a lugubrious rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, led by Concertmaster Aimee Kreston.

One thread to the evening was Feinstein’s use of arrangers indelibly linked to Sinatra, including Nelson Riddle and Ruby Bloom. Blank also offered a couple of his arrangements and led the Pops as it played well both as an orchestra and a ’30s-style jazz band.

As is typical of Feinstein programs, he offered a couple of “discoveries”: Blank’s arrangement of Orange, and a complete performance of Three Coins in the Fountain (Sinatra recorded the title song for the 1954 movie but what was used wasn’t the complete version that Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne created).

Throughout the evening Feinstein played every role but conductor: singing some of the songs (such as Something’s to Give) accompanied by the orchestra, some (e.g., I’ve Got a Crush on You) from the piano, and Birth of the Blues, where Feinstein offered a spiffy piano solo.

Perhaps the most poignant piece was If I Loved You, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s movie Carousel. Feinstein preceded this by noting the familiar story about why Sinatra elected not to appear as Billy Bigelow in the movie — he didn’t want to have to record each scene twice, once in standard format and the other in widescreen, which was necessary in those days.

However, Feinstein offered a different version, courtesy of Shirley Jones (the female star), who said Sinatra was afraid that his wife, Ava Gardner, would have an affair with Humphrey Bogart while they were overseas making a movie, so Sinatra withdrew to join her. It was a typical Feinstein historical note.

The evening concluded with a medley of Sinatra songs, a reprise from the conclusion of last year’s Sinatra Project. If there is to be a Volume 3 it won’t be next year. Instead, Feinstein is slated to sing an evening of Swing Music on July 29 as the third concert in the 2017 summer season.

This year’s season continues on August 20 with Feinstein conducting the Pops in music by Cole Porter (INFO) and concludes on September 10 with an evening of music from Warner Bros (INFO).

For next season, the pattern from Feinstein’s first seasons seems to be well entrenched. 2017 will open with Feinstein conducting the Pops in Broadway: the Golden Age on June 17 and continues with music from Jersey Boys and Beyond on July 15, with Blank leading the Pops and four members of the Broadway musical. After Feinstein Sings Swing on July 29 will come Gershwin and Friends on August 19 and Universal Studios Favorites on September 9, both with Feinstein conducting.
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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