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: 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: 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.

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

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CLASS ACT: (Revised) Dudamel, L.A. Phil open Bowl classical season on July 12

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

NOTE: This column has been revised to include date changes and a link to an article on Solea Pfeiffer.

Dudamel-HB-2016Although Hollywood Bowl has been going strong for several weeks, its 10-week classical music season opens July 12 when Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a blockbuster program pairing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Chinese pianist Lang Lang as soloist in the concerto. (INFO)

Unlike most of his music director-predecessors — who, at best, tolerated the Bowl’s outdoor distractions — Dudamel revels in the opportunity to present music to great numbers of people, many of whom may be attending a classical concert for the first time. Beginning with this year’s opening night Dudamel will conduct eight programs during the season, concluding with the “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts on August 5 and 6. (INFO)

The July 14 and 19 programs will see Dudamel leading a work that is embedded in his DNA: Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. 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)

The July 21 concert features another superstar Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang, in not one but two concertos: Ravel’s Concerto in G and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Dudamel and the Phil will open the evening with Gershwin’s “Symphonic Suite from Porgy and Bess” and conclude the proceedings with Ravel’s Bolero. (INFO)

The summer’s now-annual opera production will be Puccini’s Tosca on July 24, with Dudamel leading the LAPO, L.A. Master Chorale, L.A. Children’s Chorus and a cast of soloists headed by Santa Monica native Julianna Di Giacomo in the title role. (INFO)

What makes the Bowl classical season important? For many of us, Hollywood Bowl was among our first exposures to classical music. I remember being mesmerized by the gigantic Bowl with its thousands and thousands of seats under a canopy of stars (if they were visible through the smog) and for one of the first times hearing the L.A. Phil playing glorious music live.

Although each year I kvetch about the orchestra’s management not being more aggressive in making more seats in the upper tiers available at lower prices, you can buy seats at $8 and $12 for some concerts, which is cheaper than attending a movie these days. Moreover, the enhanced sound system and gigantic digital monitors make the experience far better than when I was a kid a half century ago. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere.

Information on the entire summer schedule is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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