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LA Philharmonic, first three concerts

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.

The concert closed with a quote by Herbie Hancock: “It’s up to us to create the kind of future that’s going to be positive for everyone.”

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