By Robert D. Thomas
Southern California News Group
Nearly every major American orchestra opens their season with some sort of gala concert in advance of their initial subscription programs. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is no different … except that it is.
Many of the L.A. patrons (most of whom have ponied up big bucks to attend the post-concert party on Grand Avenue) dress up in black tie or the female equivalent and amble up a red carpet. The concert is somewhat shorter than regular subscription programs, negated somewhat by the fact that most of the audience arrive very late (the downbeat last night was 21 minutes after the announced start time of 7 p.m.)
The evening, which ended with mylar shards floating down from the Walt Disney Concert Hall ceiling, also raises big bucks for the Phil’s education programs, including its Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), the local version of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, which begins its 10th anniversary this year. The orchestra donates its services for this annual event.
What makes the Phil galas different is that LAPO Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above) takes these programs very seriously. True, last night ended with a repertoire staple — Gershwin’s An American in Paris — but that piece was a natural finish to an evening that focused on “Gershwin and the Jazz Age.”
In addition to music by Gershwin, Dudamel added selections from two other giants of the jazz age — Cole Porter and Duke Ellington — and a work by a composer whose work was heavily influenced by jazz: Leonard Bernstein.
Not only did Dudamel take the program seriously but so did the orchestra, which played at top form throughout the evening, not an easy thing to do when shifting from one style to another, in this case from jaunty jazz to sweeping symphonic.
The evening opened with Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations, which featured diminutive 21-year-old pianist George Li as the saucy soloist.
The orchestra’s Principal Clarinet, Boris Allakhverdyan, also proved to be a formidable soloist in Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, which, according to John Henken’s informative music notes, was written originally on a commission by Woody Herman in 1949. However, Herman’s band broke up before he could perform the piece and it wasn’t until 1955 the the piece was actually performed, with Benny Goodman as soloist, for the television series, Omnibus.
For these ears, the highlight of the evening was the second movement, Stalking Monster, of Ellington’s 1955 work Night Creature, with the trombone section setting an atmospheric mood and Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour adding a winsome solo. This would be a great encore piece on the Phil’s upcoming West Coast tour.
In between those opening and closing orchestral sections, singers Megan Hilty and Brian Stokes Mitchell offered solos and duets by Cole Porter (Always True to You in My Fashion and So in Love) and Gershwin (Someone to Watch Over Me and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off).
The highlight was Mitchell’s hilarious rendition of It Ain’t Necessarily So from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, although it took awhile for the audience to get in the swing of things as the “echo” part.
Now age 35 and beginning his eight season at the Phil’s helm, Dudamel was relaxed and poised on the podium and even joked about the silver strands creeping into his curly hair. It was a promising beginning to the orchestra’s 98th season.
• Although the official unveiling isn’t until Saturday, patrons entering Disney Hall from the parking garage got their first look at Nimbus, a series of cloud-like structures hanging from the ceiling accompanied by music played by the Phil’s musicians. Details are HERE.
• The orchestra’s 98th subscription season opens tomorrow night with Dudamel leading the Phil in Beethoven’s Corolian Overture, John Adams’ Strange Jest, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet as soloists, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. The program repeats Friday and Sunday; KUSC will broadcast the Friday program. INFO
• The program officially kicks off the season-long 70th birthday celebration of Adams, who — in addition to being one of America’s most important composers — serves as the Phil’s Creative Chair.
• In addition to officially unveiling Nimbus, Saturday will be an 12-hour (noon to midnight) celebration of contemporary music, including the opening program in the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series. INFO
(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.