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.

• 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).

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

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