By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, Herbie Hancock, piano
Overture, Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris
Tuesday, September 27, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next concerts: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Walt Disney
Blue and gold were the dominant colors at Walt Disney
Concert Hall last night. No, UCLA wasn’t playing. Blue was everywhere (even the
usual red carpet was blue last night), an obvious reference to the final work
in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season-opening gala concert: George
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The gold
came courtesy of the performance standards from the orchestra, Music Director
Gustavo Dudamel, and legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, the evening’s
In many ways, it was your standard LAPO gala. A packed house
was on hand, many dressed in formal finery. It was a late-arriving throng; more
than half struggled to wander to their seats well after the appointed 7 p.m.
start time (the downbeat came at 7:18 p.m.). TV cameras and still photogs recorded
entrances of the rich and famous. The WNET NY camera crew was on hand to record
the concert for a later PBS Great
Performances telecast to the U.S. and Europe. Grand Ave. was closed off
(creating the usual traffic jam), this time with a faux-brick covered tent for
the post-concert party. The tent entrance was marked with a nifty art-decco
sign that also served as the logo for the dressed up, blue-colored program. The
concert ended with the now-obligatory shower of shiny blue and silver mylar
accented by strobe lights.
Fortunately (since the concert ran about 1:20 with no
intermission) there were no preconcert speeches, although Dudamel did chat a
little between pieces, saying little worthwhile but doing so with his charming
smile and accented English. The music was the focal point (especially for
non-party goers), which was as it should be.
All three of the Gershwin works on the formal program are
standard outdoor (e.g., Hollywood Bowl) pieces and it was a pleasure to hear
them indoors in the marvelous Disney Hall acoustic.
Dudamel and Co. opened with a saucy, sultry performance of
the Cuban Overture, a piece Gershwin
wrote in 1932 following a visit to Havana. As it did all night, the
Philharmonic played with razor-sharp precision and several of the soloists —
Ariana Ghez, oboe, Michelle Zukovsky, clarinet, Thomas Hooten, trumpet (see the
note in Hemidemisemiquavers below) — and the entire string section were
exemplary. Dudamel ignored Gershwin instructions, written on title page, that
the four Cuban instruments — claves, maracas, guiro and bongos — should be
placed in front of the conductor’s stand but they were heard anyway.
Most conductors would place Rhapsody in Blue following the overture and end with An American in Paris (which, indeed, was
how the Web site listed the order) but Dudamel elected to reverse the order because
of Hancock’s appearance.
Gershwin considered An
American in Paris to be (quoting the program note by Eric Blomberg) “a tone
poem for orchestra — a musical portrait of an American visitor to the City of
Light.” Although sketches of the work were written in the early 1920s, the flavor
of the piece resulted from of an extended vacation by Gershwin and his family
to Paris in 1928. Gershwin was age 30 at the time of the visit and Dudamel’s
concept of An American in Paris is of
a young man, full of life, striding briskly, not strolling, down the streets of
The work is clearly in Dudamel’s wheelhouse (as baseball
players like to say about a perfectly placed pitch). He bobbed, weaved, bounced and danced his way through the
saucy segments and invested the other moments with a grandiloquent style; the
whole thing should look great on television. Once again principals shone: in
this case, Hooten, James Miller, trombone, Norman Pearson, tuba, the four
saxophonists and Concertmaster Martin Chalifour.
That left center stage to Hancock, who at age 71 still can
tinkle the ivories with panache and has extended his contract as the orchestra’s
Creative Chair for Jazz through the 2012-2013 season. He began by freely
improvising on two Gershwin songs, Embraceable You and Someone to Watch Over
Me. Unfortunately, his wistful mood was somewhat sabotaged by coughs, sneezes
and other assorted noises from the audience, some of whom may not realize how “live”
Disney Hall is.
When it comes to Rhapsody
in Blue, Hancock and Dudamel had widely divergent opinions on tempi, but the whole was infinitely greater
than the sum of the parts, noteworthy as those individual contributions were.
After Zukovsky got things swinging with her saucy, sensuous opening clarinet lick,
Dudamel raced the orchestra along through most of the early orchestral
sections, only to broaden out in the final climactic moments. Kudos,
especially, to trumpeter James Wilt for his sultry sounds.
Hancock, meanwhile (who used a score), showed plenty of
chops while accompanying the orchestra. When not constrained by Dudamel’s
tempi, he delivered the solo portions with an improvisatory feel, even when he
was playing Gershwin’s notes, an impish grin every once in awhile saying, in
effect, to the audience, “Isn’t this cool?” It was all of that and the audience
erupted in an instantaneous standing ovation at the conclusion, with Dudamel —
always the gentleman — ceding most of the glory to Hancock, who beamed and
waved to everyone on all sides of the hall.
Hancock told the crowd that this was the first time he had
played with a symphony orchestra, forgetting that his bio says he played a
Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony at age 11 (to be fair, that was
60 years ago). He’s scheduled to play “Rhapsody
in Blue” with the Calgary Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony and Oregon
Symphony next month.
Australian Andrew Bain has become the Phil’s new principal
horn. He has held similar positions with the Melbourne and Queensland Symphony
Daniel Rothmuller is serving as the orchestra’s Associate
Principal Cellist Emeritus while Peter Stumpf is on leave teaching at Indiana
University’s Jacobs School of Music. CK Dexter Haven in his Blog, “All is Yar,”
has much to say and speculate about this (LINK).
Thomas Hooten (principal trumpet of the Atlanta Symphony) is
on board as guest principal trumpet for the opening concerts and will play on
the upcoming tour to San Francisco while the Phil’s principal, Donald Green, is
on sabbatical. Hooten was the first recipient of the ASO’s Mabel Dorn Reeder
Honorary Chair, a five-year award according to an article by Howard Posner on
the Atlanta “Journal & Constitution” Web
The L.A. Phil’s 2011-2012 subscription season opens this
weekend with an all-orchestral (i.e., no soloist) concert that includes Adams’ Tromba Iontana (a four-minute-long
fanfare), the U.S. premiere of Rituales Amerindios by Argentinean
composer Esteban Benzecry, and Berlioz’s Symphonie
Fantastique. Asadour Santourian, artistic advisor and administrator of Aspen Music
Festival and School, will deliver a preconcert lecture an hour before each
concert. Information and dates are at the top of this review.
If you’re not already on the email list, now is a good
time to sign up for “Fast Notes,” which are emailed from the orchestra a few
days before each event. “Fast Notes” are a quick overview of the upcoming
concert with links to program notes and other information. Even if you’re not
going to attend a particular concert, they’re worth reading. Sign up at:
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.