The Los Angeles Philharmonic is producing a series of concerts online, documenting the first time the orchestra has performed together since the start of the pandemic. There are nine concerts in the series, I’m going to review them in sets of three. I encourage you to watch them yourself. Each concert is about a half hour long, and is free:
*Love in the Time of COVID*
All of the concerts took place at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by their artistic director, Gustavo Dudamel. The first concert opened with footage of the musicians warming up, before going onstage, the string players wearing masks. We then saw a beautiful montage of shots of the empty Hollywood Bowl, the empty stage, and some gorgeous cityscapes of Los Angeles. The audio during the montage was María Valverde reading “Poema XII” by Pablo Neruda. There were other montages and Neruda readings between the other pieces on the program. It was a moody, elegiac way to open the first concert.
The first piece was J’Nai Bridges singing the last of Peter Lieberson’s *Neruda Songs,* “Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueras.” Lieberson wrote the piece for his wife, the great mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Bridges sang like a dream and looked like a vision in her major diva gown and false eyelashes. This was a charming contrast to the orchestra musicians, who were wearing black shirts and slacks, and an amusing contrast to the camera operators who we occasionally saw roaming around the stage, wearing black T-shirts and shorts.
The piece was a co-commission by the LA Phil and the Boston Symphony, premiered in 2005 in LA. The music was gorgeous, colorful, beautifully crafted, with a sure sense of orchestra color, vocal writing, and text setting. It was not what I would call innovative. It reminded me, of all things, of Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who died in 1920! But hey, I don’t need innovative, I’m happy with gorgeous.
The second piece was *Lyric for Strings* by the contemporary American composer George Walker. More gorgeous, well-crafted, assured music, and more looking over the shoulder at music from a previous generation. It made me think of Erich Korngold (died in 1957) and Samuel Barber (died in 1981).
Oh my! The third piece was the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. This piece turned me into a weepy mess when I heard it played by the NY Phil a few years ago. It’s written for strings and harp, and it’s Mahler at his most tender and (a word I’m using a lot lately) transcendent.
*Salón Los Angeles*
The concert opened with a Latino couple dancing, to no music, in the aisles of the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a sign of the times that this wasn’t spooky, it was sweet.
This first piece was filmed at night, unlike the previous concert, and it was a little strange to see Dudamel walk onstage with a follow spot on him. Also his pants seemed to be a little shiny. Not in a bad way.
The first piece was “Danzón No. 1” by Arturo Márquez, performed by a very small ensemble, I would guess about 20 players. A warm, charming piece, a perfect way to open a concert, with many solos. We saw more close-ups of the players than in the previous concert, and we got to see that the wind players were each enclosed in their own little Plexiglass cublicle, open in the back. Alex Ross wrote an article in the New Yorker recently about these LA Phil concerts. He interviewed one of the wind players and she said that she can barely hear the other players, and it becomes an exercise in playing independently and watching the conductor in a more focused way.
The second and final piece was Gershwin’s *Rhapsody in Blue* with Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing the piano solo. His playing was technically dazzling and full of flair, but he also seemed to bring something very personal to this overly familiar music, that was a delight to hear. Dudamel also brought distinctive touches to the piece, highlighting unexpected colors, stretching a phrase or nudging it forward in a way I hadn’t heard before. Of course the entrance of the love theme put me in a fit of tears.
I want to mention what Thibaudet was wearing: a black wing-tip shirt and black slacks, a sapphire blue sparkly jacket, electric blue socks, and black velvet pumps with a cluster of jewels on the top. Let me be precise about my use of the word “pumps:” these were not high heels (though I could see Thibaudet rocking a pair of high heels in a different kind of gig). These were men’s shoes, without laces, built a bit like a bedroom slipper, but highly elegant. Piss elegant, as Elaine Stritch would say.
*Power To the People*
The introductory comments were made by Herbie Hancock, saying that the Power To the People concert series had started earlier this year but was cut short by COVID-19. He ended with this: “When we come together for peace and justice, we are powerful.”
The first piece was “Banner” by Jessie Montgomery. I Googled her: she’s only 39! Rock on! I’ll be keeping an eye on her. The piece was written for a string ensemble and it had an infectious exuberance about it. The writing was imaginative, with an intriguing mix of violence and lyricism, with an interesting balance of small-scale and large-scale design. Off topic, is it still OK to use the word “infectious?”
The piece was followed by a quote from Montgomery, posted on the screen: “The United States is many, many things. It’s many cultures, it’s many influences, it’s everyone. It’s every continent that surrounds us. It’s everyone that’s come here. It’s the difficult struggle of equality. It’s all of these things.”
The next piece was “Sorrow” from Symphony #1, *Afro-American,* by William Grant Still. He wrote it in 1930, and it had strong echoes of Gershwin, infused with a Mahlerian melancholy. I had heard of Grant Still, but hadn’t heard any of his music before. This was lovely, I’m going to do some exploring.
A quote by Grant Still: “For me there is no white music or black music, there is only music by individual men that is important if it attempts to dignify all men, not just a particular race.”
The final piece was a performance of “Rise Up” by Andra Day, performed by her and her band (guitar, bass, drums, keyboard) on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl. Beautiful song, classic R & B, and she has such a delicious, distinctive voice. The song made me not just weep, I was tapping my foot as I was weeping. That doesn’t happen every day of the week. Another artist I need to explore.
I got my wish! The next concert on the LA Phil concert series was a three-song performance by Andra Day and her band. Who I will credit now: Luis Raio on bass, David Wood guitar, Charles Jones on keyboard and vocals, and Angus Godwin on drums and vocals. I’ll also mention what she was wearing, since I went to such length on that subject with Jean-Yves Thibaudet: she wore a pair of olive and white cargo pants, black boots, and a black T-shirt with white writing that said, “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” On the back it said, “Say her name.”
Her first song was an original song, “Gold.” It had a fabulous mix of new jazz and old funk. This is her performance from the Hollywood Bowl:
She ended with “Rise Up,” the same performance as had concluded the previous LA Phil concert. And in between she did Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” Nina Simone sang the song like an angry anthem, but with a catchy beat. As she says in the song, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” Ms. Day had a wholly original take on the song, laid back and sardonic.
Oh YES. I read online that one of Ms. Day’s upcoming projects is playing Billie Holiday in *The United States vs. Billie Holiday,* directed by Lee Daniels. It’s scheduled for a release in February 2021. Yes, thank you!
The orchestra played the Beethoven 7th symphony. They played with elegance, vitality, imagination, and wit. Beethoven is of course a genius, I’m not breaking any news by saying that, but as much as I love Beethoven, it’s his chamber music that I love, not his symphonies. It seems to me like the ideas are a little more blurry and bloated when it’s a whole orchestra. The genius is more pointed in a chamber work.
But I listened to the concert with an open mind, though it felt like a duty and not as much like a pleasure. I’m such a philistine, I was happy to hear a tune I’d heard before - - the second movement is recently famous from its appearance in *The King’s Speech.*
I was surprised to hear how the famous tune is developed over the course of the movement. I bet I was supposed to listen to this during Music History back in 1989.
I also listened to it with the thought that Beethoven is an essential step towards the German and Austrian music that really puts fuel in my tank: Wagner, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. And hell, why not, I’ll add Mahler to that list. But please, not Bruckner.
Hm, now you’ve got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be fun to hear a program that brings us through the progression of 18th, 19th, and 20th century German and Austrian classical music? Bach, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Weber, Wagner, ok Bruckner, R Strauss, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. And could we leave a spot for Hummel? Don’t forget Hummel. Did I leave anyone out?
I’d never heard of Washington. He introduced the piece, a suite of music he wrote for *Becoming,* the documentary about Michelle Obama. I liked the music a lot, it had a strong aura of Burt Bacharach, maybe a little more drive, but it definitely had that sexy, sunny California vibe. It was remarkable that Dudamel included Washington in the series, with his own concert. It felt like a nod to the movie industry, which is of course the bread and butter of Los Angeles. Washington played a delicious saxophone solo in the second movement. He’s got some chops, also some RINGS.
The third movement had many tasty layers - - blue strings, tinkling piano, riffing muted trumpet, lots of other tasty elements. The fourth movement opened with a marvelous trombone solo. Is this The New Jazz? I know very little about jazz, and the jazz I know is definitely The Old Jazz. The layers were a little messy in this movement, and not in a satisfying way.
The fifth moment featured a lot of “Ahs” from the two singers, which is totally my jam thanks to Bacharach and Hank Mancini. Later on one of the keyboard players had a killer solo, sounding more like an electric guitar than like a keyboard. It was fun watching him play the keys with his right hand and bend the pitch with a lever with his left hand. The harmonies in this movement were classic Bacharach. God bless the Burt!
The other movements all seemed to feel like more of the same. This is sometimes the problem with film music - - it works perfectly in the context of the film but doesn’t have quite enough presence or personality to stand on its own. A little more variety in the musical ideas would have been welcome. Hearing this concert made we want to watch the documentary (which I think is streaming on Netflix?).
He concluded the concert by introducing each of the members of the ensemble, it seemed like about 20 people, and each of those people got a close-up and smiled at the camera. Why did this make me teary? I think part of it is that they were an unusually diverse group of people. That’s inspiring. Here's the whole concert:
At first I thought there was something askew - - was the concert really only 11 minutes long? They’re typically 30, which is short to begin with, but 10 minutes? For real.
The program notes quoted 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, from his essay, “On Solitude:” “We must take the soul back and withdraw it into itself.” An entirely French concept.
The first piece was “Dawn” by Thomas Adès. I know Adès as an opera composer, I’ve seen all three of his operas: *Powder Her Face* (a sleezy little affair about the Duchess of Argyll, right up my alley), *The Tempest* (based on the Shakespeare play, I saw it twice and hated it even more the second time), and *The Exterminating Angel* (based on the Luis Buñuel film, fascinating). He’s a very talented composer, always knows what he’s doing if I don’t like what he’s doing. “Dawn” was gentle, quiet, maybe even a little languid. It had a repeating melodic figure, given just enough variation to make it interesting. I bet it’s even more impressive in person. The LA Phil performance was accompanied by many sweeping shots of the empty Hollywood Bowl, adding to the overall feeling of sadness. Thankfully it had a rather active ending, that was welcome.
The second piece was “Solitude” by Duke Ellington, arranged by Morton Gould. Such a priceless song, and the arrangement was swoopy, lush, and fragrant, with shimmering strings straight out of the Percy Faith tradition, some darling tinkles on the celesta, and some strategic strumming on the harp just for you, Mary Ann Grinde! I was covered with chills and yes, I did tear up a little bit. Mission accomplished.
I’d never heard of Chicano Batman, they’re a band based in Los Angeles. They opened with “Color My Life,” a groovy tune. Their sound is sweet, catchy, and a little gritty, like Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 for the new millennium. And we need one of those, am I right? Something interesting was going on with their look - - I would not describe these guys as “attractive,” but they were skinny, they were wearing cool threads, and they were playing in a pop band, so that all adds up to them being irresistibly sexy.
The next song was “Moment of Joy,” darling. The third song was “Manuel’s Story,” more upbeat with some nice playing on the glittery electric guitar. “I Know It” had a different vibe from the other songs, I didn’t like it as much but it didn’t do me any harm.
“Polymetronomic Harmony” started with a solo on the glittery electric guitar (always a good choice). I was disappointed that the song had totally ordinary rhythms, I was looking forward to hearing something polymetronmic (a word they appear to have made up). But it was catchy, I thought I might have it stuck in my head for a few days. The final song was “Invisible People,” another song that didn’t really deliver for me. But playing in the background while I’m cooking lentils - - yes, thank you.
Here they are doing one of those darling NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. Love that they're so glammed up for such a quotidian venue.
The concert opened with a few bits of conversation between Dudamel and Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of *Birdman,* *The Revenant,* *Babel,* *Amores Perros,* so many great movies. I’m sure they’re both comfortable speaking in English, but I loved that their conversation was in Spanish (with subtitles, thank you).
They started by talking about the Hollywood Bowl, what a beautiful space it is and how strange that there are really no concerts happening there, for the first time in nearly a hundred years. Then they moved on to the subject of finales, and how important it is to have a strong ending to any kind of cultural enterprise. Dudamel said that he understands how to manage a finale in music but didn’t know how you do it in a film. Do you come up with the ending first? González Iñárritu said that he almost never knows the ending when he starts a project. To him that would be the difference between being a traveler and being a tourist. He also compared not having an ending in mind to going on a trip with a one-way ticket.
Dudamel said that one of the pieces they were playing was a movement from Ravel’s *La mère l’Oye,* the Mother Goose suite. He said the ending is quite simple, but there’s a crescendo at the end that’s one of the most emotional crescendos in the history of music. To him that’s proof that Ravel didn’t necessarily know what kind of ending he wanted to make, and this was his inspired solution.
We then cut to the concert, with the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, a daytime concert. Dudamel’s entrance onto the stage was touching: he walked out, wearing his mask, walking between the string players, who were also wearing masks. He took his place at the podium, took off his mask, and smiled at the camera.
I hadn’t heard *La mère l’Oye* before, they played the final movement, what a gorgeous piece. Was there ever a more brilliant orchestrator than Ravel? The music itself is glorious, and this piece was originally written for four-hand piano, but wow, the orchestration is so extraordinary.
Next they played the final movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, which was also a masterpiece of orchestration, in its own way. And so joyous, so ebullient, and full of little surprises.
Dudamel asked González Iñárritu about how he uses music in his movies. González Iñárritu said that he loves music more than he loves movies, that music taps into a deeper place for him than movies do.
The final piece was “Ritual Mind – Corporeous Pulse” from *Corpórea* by Gabriela Ortiz. I’d never heard of Ortiz before, and what a wonderful choice to end their last concert, to have it be by a living composer, a young composer (she’s only 55), a Mexican composer, a female composer. It’s written for a chamber ensemble (another fascinating choice, rather than a piece for full orchestra): violin, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, harp, and percussion. It had an ominous opening, which quickly moved to something lighter and moving through many different moods. Quicksilver!
PS: My recipe for lentils:
One cup of raw lentils (whatever color you like)
Two cups of water
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon thyme
¾ teaspoon cumin
¾ teaspoon oregano
¾ teaspoon basil
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Throw the lentils in a large saucepan. Add the water. Add the spices and the olive oil. Stir. Cook at a high heat until it boils. Turn down to a very low flame, cover, and cook for 30 minutes. Do not lift the lid, do not stir, do not press Go. When the 30 minutes are up, remove the pot from the burner (leave it covered, do no lift the lid, etc) and let the lentils sit for another 30 minutes or so. Stir and eat. Perfect on a salad or in a wrap with rice, green olives, and grated cheddar cheese (or cubed swiss, if you prefer).