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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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: Benedetti, L.A. Phil introduce Wynton Marsalis violin concerto to Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Wynton Marsalis might be considered the Mozart of our generation. Most people think of him as a trumpeter (both in jazz and classical music), just as many in Mozart’s era thought of him as a child pianist. However, Marsalis is also a teacher, music educator and artistic director of “Jazz at Lincoln Center” in New York City.

He is also a significant composer. His Blood on the Fields became, in 1997, the first jazz piece to win a Pulitzer Prize in Music. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, under then-Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, recorded Marsalis’ 2002 oratorio All Rise, and the LAPO gave the West Coast premiere of his 2010 Swing Symphony.

BenettiNot until last year had Marsalis written a piece for solo instrument and orchestra, but last night at Hollywood Bowl the L.A. Phil gave the West Coast premiere of his Concerto in D for violin and orchestra (the Phil was part of the commissioning team). The world premiere was in London last November. The U.S. premiere was two weeks ago at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival. The piece was written for Scottish-born violinist Nicola Benedetti (pictured left) and she was on hand last night to play it magnificently.

To say that the 38-minute work is eclectic would be to radically understate all that Marsalis has thrown into it. In an interview with Music Critic John Rhein of the Chicago Tribune, Benedetti — who turned age 29 last week — said, “Wynton is funny and quirky, and there are so many little moments of humor and color in [the piece]. I would encourage people to go along for the ride and have fun.” It was good advice.

The concerto is divided into four movements — Rhapsody, Rondo Burleske, Blues and Hootenanny — but that’s just the beginning. As John Henken explained in his program notes, the first movement is subdivided into sections called Lullabye, Habanera, Dream, Military March (Nightmare), Blues Spiritual, Morning (Wistful but Sweet) and Rustic Dance (Distant Ancestral Memories).

Moreover in the first 23 bars are the following notations: from nothing, with gravitas, angsty, with purity, genuflect, freely, become more angsty, peaceful, with optimism, sweetly, sexy and throaty — essentially one for every two bars. Believe it or not, Benedetti pulled off all of these wonderfully, not an easy task since Marsalis had her soaring into the stratosphere throughout most of the performance, in the process nearly wearing out her violin’s E string while delivering a silky, singing tone.

Despite the above notations, the work is not a jazz concerto. It draws its influences from virtually every segment of American music, so it might well be considered an American concerto. Because there is so much embedded in its pages, it’s also a work that would benefit from hearing it multiple times, so it will be interesting to see if it catches on and, in particular, whether other violinists will want to put in the sweat equity to learn and perform the piece — the soloist plays in virtually every measure.

Among the takeaways: the opening, with Benedetti beginning plaintively and then building for those aforementioned 23 bars before the orchestra enters; the goofy accompaniment in the second movement, with Benedetti’s long hair whirling in the air as she negotiated the pyrotechnic solos; the Blues section, which was the most jazz-influenced (to my ears), with its lyrical inner section leading into the Hooteanny movement, where orchestra members not otherwise engaged were clapping enthusiastically (it was so infectious that I would have joined in but wouldn’t have known when to stop.

Cristian Măcelaru provide to be an inspired choice as the evening’s guest conductor, since before turning to conducting he was a good enough violinist to earn a Master’s degree in violin performance (along with one in conducting) from Rice University; become the youngest concertmaster in the history of the Miami Symphony (he made his Carnegie Hall debut with that orchestra at the age of 19); and play in the first violin section of the Houston Symphony for two seasons. For good measure, he joined Benedetti in the U.S. premiere of Marsalis’ concerto two weeks ago at Ravinia. So it was no surprise that he accompanied Benedetti sympathetically and the orchestra took the many musical mood shifts easily in its collective stride.

Măcelaru also proved to be a canny programmer, surrounding the concerto with two Aaron Copland works — canny because Copland was among the many influences heard in the concerto, especially in the last movement.

The program opened with An Outdoor Overture, which featured elegant solo work from Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten. The piece was written in 1938 for the High School for Music and Art in New York City, which obviously had a top-flight orchestra, and came at a time when Copland was developing what would be his signature musical style just as we was beginning to write his ballet music.

After intermission, came Copland’s Symphony No. 3, which was begun in 1944 and finished two years later. This might be considered the ultimate result of Copland’s musical style-change begun in 1938, and Măcelaru led a robust rendition, allowing the composer’s music to make its own statement. Even the “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which opens the final movement, was almost understated but never dull. The orchestra’s brass and percussion players highlighted the performance.

During the final movement as the flutes were softly playing, there were birds on the hillside that seemingly were singing along. It could only happen at the Bowl.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Măcelaru — who, among his other gigs, is resident conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra — is scheduled to conduct the San Diego Symphony on January 16 and 17. The SDS is searching for a replacement for outgoing Music Director Jaha Ling, and San Diego might be a perfect spot for Măcelaru to continue his upward career ascendancy if he’s willing to relocate from Philly.
A Chorus Line plays this weekend at the Bowl. An oddity is that while the program book gives bio information on virtually everyone involved in the production, there’s not one word about the team that created the musical in the first place: Director and Choreographer Michael Bennett, Authors James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, Lyricist Edward Kleban, and composer Marvin Hamlisch, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for the score. Sic transit Gloria. INFORMATION
• L.A. Phil Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel returns to the Bowl on Tuesday, leading the orchestra in a program of Latin American music, featuring the world premiere of Concerto de la Amistad by Lalo Schifrin and dance music by Piazzolla and Ginastera. INFORMATION
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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: Feinstein with Pasadena Pops, Mirga at the Bowl highlight upcoming week

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Style: "p25+-Ipro"For the past quarter century, Michael Feinstein pictured above has become the leading proponent and curator of “The Great American Songbook,” which is not really a book but rather a collection of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early and mid-20th century.

One of the leading lights of that collection was Frank Sinatra, and Feinstein will join with the Pasadena Pops July 30 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum for what he has termed “The Sinatra Project — Volume 2.” It’s a follow-up to last summer’s sold-out concert of music by the crooner affectionately known as “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”

As was the case last summer, Feinstein will spend the evening singing and talking about Sinatra and his music. It will be an intimate evening as Feinstein’s first-hand knowledge gives him a unique slant on Sinatra. “I have a very different perspective about his musical taste,” explains Feinstein. “Among other things he loved classical music so I’m very careful in combining swing arrangements with great orchestrations of the ballads. Some are vintage charts that have not been heard publicly in many years or ever.”

One of those rarely heard numbers will be Sinatra’s original arrangement of Three Coins in the Fountain, which was cut in half for the 1954 motion picture. “Finding things like that is what makes an evening like this exciting for me,” says Feinstein. Other numbers will include Pennies from Heaven and Young at Heart. Resident Conductor Larry Blank will lead the Pops in this concert.

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

Mirga_2016_4_WebIn the midst of Gustavo Dudamel’s last weeks at Hollywood Bowl for this summer comes a concert that, for classical music aficionados, is a must-see event as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (pictured left), one of the sharply rising stars in the musical firmament, conducts her only Bowl concert this summer this coming Tuesday.

A 29-year-old Lithuania native, Gražinytė-Tyla (because her last name is a tongue-twister to pronounce virtually everyone simply calls her “Mirga”) will become the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Associate Conductor this fall. More importantly she has been named Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the latest in a long line of youthful conductors to lead that esteemed English ensemble who are now among the world’s conducting elite (e.g., Sir Simon Rattle, Andris Nelsons).

At the Bowl Gražinytė-Tyla will lead the L.A. Phil in works by Beethoven and Ravel. Pianist Jean-Yeves Thibaudet and the Los Angeles Master Chorale will join the Phil and six vocal soloists in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.” The evening will open with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and will conclude with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and the second suite from Daphnis and Chloe.

Gražinytė-Tyla’s rise with the LAPO has been meteoric. She was a Dudamel Fellow with the orchestra in the 2012-13 season and became the ensemble’s Assistant Conductor in 2014, before being promoted to Associate Conductor for the 2016-17 season.

Information: www.hollywoodbowl.com
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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