Last seen at Hollywood Bowl: Diavolo and the musicians who stole the show

Are they ready for their close-ups? Decidedly, yes -- if we're talking about certain LA Philharmonic conductors at Hollywood Bowl and their soloists. Big, bright screens deliver them to us in a dimension not possible in the concert hall. We get to see the music as well as hear it.

That happened with podium guest James Gaffigan, pianist Hélène Grimaud and violinist Jennifer Koh.

Not so easily, though, when the subject is Jacques Heim's Diavolo, the thinking man's Cirque du Soleil that ventured its latest, much-ballyhooed epic, "Fluid Infinities" underwritten by the Philharmonic, at the outdoor showplace.

Planted stage-front on the curving surfaces of a giant dome construction, human figures meandered, slithered, crawled and groped their random way. The whole thing was darkly lit and murky -- sabotaging what would, perhaps, be effective in an indoor theater. And it worked at opposite ends of what the Bowl's camera meisters had perfected for concertizing musicians.

So what might have been an eerie speculation on outer-planetary life-struggles ended up looking small and insignificant. That's too bad in a host of ways, chiefly because the Paris-born, locally-based Heim had proved himself 20 years ago to be an original thinker, an artist with a sensibility that goes far beyond the mere mapping out of movement links and their acrobatic properties.

I have always called him the master of metaphor, the one who could over-ride deadly mechanistic formalism to suggest whimsy, humor, simpatico, along with the darker undercurrents of human behavior. What else, from an artist who could and did absorb Jacques Tati, Pina Bausch and Robert Longo?

diavolo-zaslove-v.jpgAfter all, his brilliant "Tête en l'Air" showed us how someone with his "head in the clouds" could be having an unstoppable dream -- as characters in hat and coat, carrying suitcases, tumble inexorably down a central staircase, smoke and light spilling mysteriously from the top. The milieu is surreal, while the state of transit becomes synonymous with teeming life as we know it. Was he Samuel Beckett in motion?

That was then. In the intervening years Heim has become a model of success in the corporate world, with commissions from supporting institutions and philanthropists like Glorya Kaufman bankrolling his company. The irony is that he came upon this Procrustean bed, the Philharmonic, and now must lie in it. Or, to put it differently, the tail can sometimes wag the grateful dog.

Left to his spontaneous, creative impulses -- choosing a theme, a venue, along with other theatrical/musical complements -- he likely would not have signed on to any portion of the Philip Glass 3rd Symphony. But with our resident band as a partner he needed to opt for something orchestral to merit this prized sponsorship.

Many choreographers, notably Twyla Tharp ("In the Upper Room") make a feast of Glass's music, but just when the score's impulse here was exploding with rhythmic drive -- thanks to the players, under Bramwell Tovey's leadership -- Heim's movement scheme was sluggishly exploratory. Yikes.

Not to worry, though. The visuals returned to excellence on previous nights in fascinating, wholly engaging encounters. The trick for getting a close-up advantage that aids hearing the music? Watch the screen, but only for conductor and soloist. Avert eyes from it for shots of the long row of French horns, for instance.

Grimaud1-Copyright-Mat-Hennek.jpgAnd the video crew knew what to do in the case of conductor Gaffigan: let the cameras linger on him. Urging the orchestra on in Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture, the American maestro truly "showed" us the music -- to this and Strauss's "Don Juan" he brought a visceral connectedness that was thrilling. Ditto the camera's focus on Grimaud's long, slender hands with upper palms arching and arms shuddering for her masterly Brahms D-minor Piano Concerto.

In the case of Leon Botstein's outing with Russian composers under Stalin -- wherein the conductor spoke eloquently on their struggles during the Soviet era -- we heard first-rate music making. Such orchestral refinement and nuance in the Shostakovich 10th Symphony and the same values, backing up Koh's riveting account of Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto, made it hard to believe there was but a single rehearsal.

Not all recent music of worth happened under the stars, though. A special event at Sinai Temple found conductor Nick Strimple presiding astutely over a combined choir and assorted other musicians in a sterling program of two honored composers, fugitives from Nazi Germany, who graced this city with their presence: Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl.

The excerpts from Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" were deeply moving in their multi-branched soundings and Zeisl's Requiem Ebraico soared with passionate lyricism. Here was a find -- rarely heard music of great import.

Diavolo photos: Mara Zaslove. Grimaud photo: Mat Hennek.

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