Disney Hall is not just alive with music these days -- it's throbbing with dance. For their kick-off gala, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic enlisted nothing less than American Ballet Theatre stars and stage-worthy others as the featured attraction.
And that's a relatively new activity for the house that Frank Gehry built to show off the city's musical jewel.
So here was the question: what space did our celebrated conductor and his band occupy -- while dancers trod a cleverly arranged mid-level ad hoc stage? The answer: one just below the jerry-rigged platform that cleaved out seats from the hull-shaped hall. Conclusion: the orchestra did not play in an actual pit, but occupied an approximate one, just below the fleet-footed collaborators. The verdict: it all worked surprisingly well, the logistics, that is.
The best meeting of minds between "pit" and stage came in Barak Marshall's choreography for "The Chairman Dances" from John Adams' "Nixon in China." It's a distinctly rousing pièce d' occasion -- one that catches the ethnic flavor with red flags flying, white fans flaring and regimental corps enlivened by the dance-maker's signature semaphores. What's more, the 10-member Body Traffic brought terrific energy to the task, as a grateful complement to Adams' rip-roaring rhythmic engine. And not least, the piece fit its frame to a T.
So did Josh Rhodes' episode from Bernstein's "On the Town" work out well, with wit to boot - although the familiar piece had four sailors here instead of three.
Those were the easy parts. But when it came to ballet repertory icons and the absolutely critical heartbeat collaboration needed between soloist and conductor things became iffy.
So no matter the sculptural perfection of Roberto Bolle's "Apollo" variation, with his young god's commanding insouciance, Dudamel and Co. could not muster Balanchine's and Stravinsky's accents, critically-timed here to the dancers. Ditto the "Swan Lake" excerpts for him and Veronika Part. Yes, the two performed with that sense of ingrained virtuosity and depth of expression. But, like watching people talk on screen with audio out-of-sync, the power of their dancing was short-changed. Also there were no wings to fly into, so steps had to artificially halt so as not to hit a wall at full momentum.
Apparently, none of the musical misalliances escaped Dudamel's notice.
"It takes a great specialist to accompany dancers," he said at an interval, implying his apology for not being one!
Still, there were wonderful moments: as when Part, the Black Swan Odile, surreptitiously turns her head back to see if her trickery has worked on the duped Siegfried, Bolle; and there was Martin Chalifour's accompanying violin solo to their pas de deux -- with its fine, old Slavic vibrato - which brought out the narrative's romantic darkness.
No matter what, these are two gorgeous dancers; the glitzy gala audience roared with appreciation and Dudamel and the Phil gave full-out performances, concluding with the finale of Stravinsky's "Firebird," music that defies anyone not to love it.
The next night, with not a trace of dance feathers floating down, the musicians alone took center stage, but continued on the Stravinsky path -- this time with that other storied ballet score, "Rite of Spring," or "Sacre du Printemps" as the 1913 Parisians who rioted in its cause called it.
And you can be sure that Dudamel ripped into the pagan ritual, a model of modernity, with cataclysmic force. But there was less of the razor's edge here that some others find and more emphasis on earthiness - all those deep, rich, lower-string glissandos - without ever slighting the lyric wisps left hanging seductively in the air. If there's sensuality to be had, the Phil and its director will latch onto it.
The same goes for fullness of sound elsewhere. Which means that their outing with an all-Beethoven program boasted robust, big-breadth playing that blazed and soared in the "Eroica" Symphony. They luxuriated in it. And how the band loves to be given its head!
Somehow, though, the smaller-scaled vision of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in the C-Major Concerto No. 1 did not conflict with Dudamel's zestful approach -- they got along quite nicely. The tall, slender no-nonsense Norwegian did strike his own kind of blow - with pristine pianism that found the living breath of Beethoven. It came in his phrasing, built on the impetus for these sentences, their beginnings and endings that were of a complete, single impulse. Great musicians - be they singers or instrumentalists or dancers all have this gift. He's one.