LA Phil tackles Mahler at the Bowl, while ABT exults

Michael Tilson Thomas

Big is the word to describe the city's summer scene — with the LA Philharmonic decamping to Hollywood Bowl and the whole humongous American Ballet Theatre occupying downtown's Music Center recently.

Just think, Mahler's Second Symphony, stretching nearly to the two-hour mark (with no intermission for promenade-strolling or dessert-partaking) opened the classical music festivities at the Bowl in Cahuenga Pass. Make no mistake, that's a departure from the usual glam headliners playing some warhorse or other to serenade the picnickers.

Add to that the return of native son Michael Tilson Thomas leading his old band (formerly as principal guest conductor) and you have an exceptional event in the making — one reason being that MTT, among others, has made Mahler a specialty of his, another being that the crowd (only 6,000-plus) was raptly attentive.

The playing, detailed and flexible and expressive, deserved as much, along with gorgeous outpourings from singers Kiera Duffy and Sasha Cooke. Especially so with the new sound system. And under this most probing of conductors there was no limit to the work's range, from quiet gulfs of reflection to lyric tenderness to glorious grandiosity. What audience would not know it's in the presence of Mahler's stupendous ambition, this young composer's unharnessed search for god?

But the wide-open, sprawling spaces of the Bowl may not be the place to contain this wide-open, sprawling "Resurrection" Symphony. And the big screen's presence surely does cut into even the most pristine listener's perceptions — I defy anyone to look away and just listen undistracted to the music in order to get a purer perception of it.

Downtown, on the other hand, and within the Music Center Pavilion's walls, Ballet Theatre put on a show that threatened to burst through the partitions. At its opening night mixed bill before a sold-out house, the company knew how, at the end, to send 'em home happy: stage the Balanchine/Bizet "Symphony in C," a razzle-dazzle, whiz-bang of a ballet that, in its last act, explodes in a combustion of exuberance.

Seeing the full forces onstage — rotating in dizzying waves of phalanxes measure-by-speedy-measure, and so palpably in-sync with Ormsby Wilkins' brilliantly led orchestra — I thought the whole thing was going to rock right out of the house.

Before that came the still-startling, ever-captivating relic from Balanchine's Diaghilev days, "Apollo," to Stravinsky's divine score, played wonderfully under Charles Barker . What a fabulous guide it was to the choreographer forging his then-contemporary path. And what a feast for the eye and ear.

agomes2ro.jpgOf course, it takes supreme dancers and musicians to realize its beauties. No dispute on that score here. But Marcelo Gomes, cast against type, was all beefcake and no sunlight in the title role, making it hard to dispel images of the fair, boyishly aristocratic Apollonians before him, like Peter Boal and David Hallberg, going back even to Baryshnikov and Peter Martins. His reliance on aggressive muscle-flexing canceled the character's whimsical tone.

Still, it was a treat. And the program showcased a new Ratmansky ballet, "Chamber Symphony," one of a trilogy set to Shostakovich works. That it was dark goes with the musical turf and contrasts with the esteemed choreographer's "Bright Stream," which we saw two years ago.

But what immediately distinguished it was the look and feel of that post-war European meme: disillusionment, anomie, gloom — totally in keeping with the composer's milieu. The central character, for instance, a man in loose black suit, open jacket, bare chest, flails about. His signature move, directly from Jiri Kylian or Antony Tudor, for that matter, is a rigid-body fall sideways into a line-up group with waiting arms to catch him. His mood is downcast. His many attempts to join the community fail in the end. But the work's obvious intent and ever-intricate, watchable choreography come across strongly.

The same could be said of LA Ballet's Balachine Festival, part 2, named "Red," after "Rubies." The Royce Hall performance I caught (repeated at Grand Park), as high-polished as any at New York City Ballet itself, proved that the best of Balanchine — with this degree of talent and guidance — will never lose its lustre, its appeal, and across-the-footlights magnetism.

Allynne Noelle in George Balanchine's Rubies. Photocomposition: Reed Hutchinson & Catherine Kanner.

The same could not be said, though, for the new conglomerate Hubbard Street Dance/Alonzo King Lines Ballet.

First off, the Hubbard Chicagoans, marvelous keepers of the Twyla Tharp flame among other dance wonders, never pretended to be a ballet company. And the King San Franciscans, which specialize in dancercizes or eye-catching, full-body undulations and boneless extensions for their own sake, do what I can only call a corruption of ballet. All this was a shameless waste of superb dancers.

The program's saving grace came in the only non-King piece, Alejandro Cerrudo's "Little Mortal Jump," which brought vast relief in its reward to the mind, as needed as air to the lungs. Thank you, Mr. Cerrudo for bringing back a sense of theater and imagination to the stage. And thank you Hubbard director Glenn Edgerton for injecting this one element of brain vitality into the show.

Middle photo of Marcelo Gomes in "Apollo" © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

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