By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES –How is the Los Angeles Philharmonic – once an underachiever but now the most financially stable and imaginatively programmed major orchestra in the land – celebrating its centennial this season? For starters, how about “Celebrate LA,” an all-day, all-night, citywide blowout Sept. 30 involving thousands of performers and even more thousands of bicycle riders and pedestrians, culminating in a free concert at Hollywood Bowl. It was estimated that over 100,000 people participated.
I would call it the Philharmonic’s most sweeping and successful attempt yet to reach out of classical music’s ivory tower to the city at large. But it also raises the questions of what a symphony orchestra should be in 2018 and whether its strenuous efforts to integrate itself into the community and into popular culture might be diluting its strengths.
But let’s get to the logistics of this extraordinary event: Approximately seven miles of streets from Walt Disney Concert Hall on Grand Avenue downtown to the Capitol Records tower on Vine Street in Hollywood were closed to traffic, open only to bicycles and pedestrians. It was a joint effort between the LA Phil, CARS (Community Arts Resources), and CicLAvia, an organization that periodically closes off streets on given Sundays for bike use.
Five performance hubs with stages were placed along the route, and all but one were located within steps of the Metro Red Line subway. The hubs were lined with the city’s signature food trucks as well as tents for various vendors and non-profits. Some stations along the route passed out water bottles for dehydrated cyclists and foot-weary walkers on this 85-degree Indian summer day. It was a colorful, at times noisy, but always peaceful spectacle, a rare example of Los Angeles coming together instead of separating into isolated communities and sealed-off automobiles. No, I didn’t walk the entire route, but I made it to all but one of the hubs, and the health app on my smartphone registered 8.7 miles on foot.
The hubs’ schedules of concerts in several musical categories often overlapped so that one person could not possibly catch all of the events. There were also pop-up and mobile performances in the streets. Sometimes serendipity dictated what one would encounter along the walk. At the Koreatown hub, a quintet from the Philharmonic could be seen playing a lovely rendition of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet to a small throng of listeners huddled underneath an oasis of pine trees. Look to the right after Mozart was done, and the Hwarang Youth Drumming Group was battering up a storm.
The high point of the day, hands down, was the appearance of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – shoehorned into the schedule only nine days before – on a bandstand underneath the Capitol Records tower. Their hour-long set was completely different from the ones they did at the Bowl Sept. 20 and at the Monterey Jazz Festival Sept. 21, devoted mostly to Duke Ellington with a couple of Thelonious Monk tunes thrown in. Perhaps fired up by the unusual setting, they soared to new heights. This big band now has the Ellington sound down as solid as Gibraltar; trumpeter Marcus Printup’s plunger-mute evocation of Cootie Williams in “Concerto For Cootie” gave me the chills, and tenor saxophonist Sherman Irby burned on a selection from “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.” Marsalis’ own two solos were absolutely brilliant in their economical choice of notes and tremendous swing; they belong in the all-time pantheon of great jazz trumpet moments, I think.
As the sun set and the streets were being re-opened to the usual brutal LA traffic, nearly 18,000 lucky ticket holders packed Hollywood Bowl for the main concert, a long-awaited successor to Gustavo Dudamel’s previous free concert there in 2009 when he took the reins of the Philharmonic. The program was actually another of Dudamel’s attempts to use the Phil to embrace idioms of music where symphony orchestras were once forbidden, this time blown up to even flashier, more grandiose proportions.
Dudamel started out on firm home ground with Arturo Márquez’s swinging Congo del Fuego Nuevo, with members of YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles) joining the Phil. The performance sounded somewhat rough, yet spirited, as a light show seemed to imprint vibrating record grooves on the rim of the Bowl’s shell.
Then came one of the Phil’s 50 commissioned world premieres this centennial season, Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne’s Guasamacabra, a 12-minute work based on the Venezuelan guasa rhythm. It was a fascinating jumble of a piece, with strange layers of winds and brasses slamming against oddly shaped string lines, but anchored by a firm pulse much of the time.
The Bowl sound system was turned way up, almost to rock concert levels. Dudamel has always liked his music loud in the Bowl, but this was too loud, and the speakers turned his broadly-paced renditions of the Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky’s The Firebird into a Technicolor mash – with glassy strings and booming bass to the accompaniment of dazzling video projections. I gather this is an attempt to attract and hold audiences raised on amplified music and special effects, but it risks cheapening the product. Can’t music be trusted to speak naturally even during a light show?
From this point onward, Dudamel and the Philharmonic were relegated to the background. They played rather pleasingly plush Gamble-Huff-style charts underneath three songs from the dusky-voiced Colombian-born singer Kali Uchis, whose connection with Philly soul became explicit in her cover of the Delfonics’ “La-La-Means I Love You.” Herbie Hancock – still the Phil’s Creative Chair for Jazz and the youngest 78-year-old you’ll ever meet – came out roaring on grand piano and strapped-on portable synthesizer for one number (only one?), his 1983 techno hit “Rockit,” with the great bassist Marcus Miller and the record’s original scratch DJ, Grandmixer D.S.T. among his distinguished sidemen.
Pop diva Katy Perry was next, singing three numbers including one keyed to the theme of the streets, Queen’s “Bicycle Race.” Dudamel and the Phil played David Campbell arrangements in which the strings slashed away or laid back with whole notes (known to bored studio musicians as “footballs”). The lighting effects, topped off by fireworks during the song “Firework,” reached new heights of extravagance and overkill, turning the Bowl into what would have been called a giant lit-up jukebox in yonder times. Populism hit its peak when John Williams made a surprise appearance at the concert’s end, to again conduct perhaps the most played piece of symphonic music of the 20th century – you guessed it, his title music from Star Wars.
A video of the Philharmonic music directors from Walter Henry Rothwell to Dudamel revolved on the rim of the shell during the concert’s intermission. That was a really nice touch, a look through the mists of history to remind us where the orchestra, and the ancient Bowl, have been on the way to high-tech, razzle-dazzle, multicultural 2018. But they left out Alfred Wallenstein, who directed the Philharmonic from 1943 to 1956. I wonder why.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and he is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.