A month at the Bowl and a Ballet Theatre fly-by

mirga.jpgMirga Grazinyte-Tyla.

Nowhere -- not at Boston's Tanglewood in the Berkshires, or New York's Lewisohn Stadium, or Chicago's Ravinia -- is there such a summer symphony spot as Hollywood Bowl.

As if to celebrate that fact, Gustavo Dudamel stationed himself there for his LA Philharmonic's first 2016 alfresco month, attracting throngs of locals and tourists. On the most crowded nights at the mammoth showplace-- and those are quite something, crawling up Highland Ave. at 4 blocks per half hour -- you'll find pre-concert revelers squatting rear-to-rear with their casual picnic fare on the smallest patches of ersatz grass scattered around the grounds. A bizarre sight.

But that's not mentioning the chi-chi dinners served to upscale box-occupants or the ever-expanding franchises (pop-up trucks, Suzanne Goin cuisine, burger stands, etc.) Naturally, with our resident maestro a big part of the lure, the Philharmonic's summer hangout (capacity 17,000) is a happy magnet -- though getting there is not half the fun.

Still, Dudamel and the band are not stingy with their rewards. Everything from Beethoven to Broadway from "Tosca" to tango is on tap -- proving that this Everyman of Music lives in the whole world; he does not retreat to an elitist realm.

That was clear in his latest bid to the masses: an evening of Argentine works that gave a nod to those notables, tango-meister Astor Piazzolla, film-score maven Lalo Schifrin and, for an energized, substantive measure, symphonic composer Alberto Ginastera.
What a draw to our huge Hispanic population. And some may even remember a few summers ago when Dudamel, (with his grander gestures and story-telling charm) had us dancing in the aisles to his surprise encore, "Tico Tico," a flashback to the Xavier Cugat-Carmen Miranda era. He so galvanized its infectious rhythms that everyone just tico-tico-ed out into the night.

If that's what this crowd expected, it didn't happen. Neither did anything but Ginastera's Dances from "Estanca" seem integrated -- the rest was merely episodic.

And never have we seen tango dancers -- in Piazzolla numbers, no less -- so dedicated to exhibition lifts and gymnastics. Where were all those rapid-stepping milongas, the staccato rhythms studded with long, teasing syncopations, the entwined couples locked in their gritty, mobile drama, the fast-flying spiffiness? Surely this was a new kind of corporate assimilation, hardly echt Argentine.

langlang.jpgSo what we can feel is gratitude for the Bowl's earlier war-horse programs -- especially opening night, with Lang Lang on hand for the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. While the jumbo screens put his signature mannerisms on display, somehow they identified a highly personal interpretation, rather than detracting. A hand raised in the air, a semi-swoon, all of these showed us his reflective interruption of a phrase, a thoughtful slow-down -- even though you could argue with its musical merits. Most credit went to Dudamel and the band, miraculously managing to stay in sync with him.

Sorry to say, though, camera control must go through a re-thinking of how to serve audiences.

Do these score-mapping crews really want to break up sonic presence by having our eyes thrust to rows of wood winds or French horns every few measures instead of giving a sense of continuity and buildup of musical structure? What kind of impact can we get from that kind of jerking around? How about side shots and long shots of the full orchestra, with focus mostly on the conductor who, after all, is telegraphing what the music is about, not just blowing out his cheeks.

Frankly, by month's end I was training my sights off-screen except for frames of the ever-expressive Dudamel. And yes, he's much diminished in his physical manner these days, his hair is now short and kempt, but you can see via close-ups his intimacy with the players, his eyes looking up at them from under his lashes, a connection that is quietly intense and unremitting.

When he's not on the podium -- newly named associate conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla flew into town one week -- things do change. But the young maestra did a bang-up job with Ravel's "Daphnis et ChloƩ" Suite No. 2. The orchestra gleamed and glistened with a sensuousness that must account to her ministrations, even while her stick technique does not always lend emphatic finality. This score, though, which can fill a night's expansive poetry, is ideal for the big outdoors. It was a thrilling performance.

That can be said, too, for the original works choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre which touched down for a weekend at the Music Center Pavilion.
In fact, the company's much-heralded Russian dance-maker has opened new vistas that are fairly startling to long-time followers. The troupe's men, for instance, both principals and soloists in two of the ballets, have an unfamiliar strength and conviction in their bearing. They look almost Russian, as we think back to the Kirov and Bolshoi, certainly not boyish in the American male style.

That was most noticeable in the ballet set to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9, for which Ratmansky used the same title. But what's even more telling is how he translates the music's mood to the tone of his choreography -- especially when you realize how seldom we see this instinct in current practitioners. The talent, at its depth, comes in understanding the music, something the gifted Russian can do with music so emblematically Russian, in all its 20th-century sense of displacement and foreboding. A pretty remarkable feat -- that the cast grabbed onto magnificently.

The same could be said, both of "Serenade After Plato's Symposium" to Bernstein's music and Ratmansky's setting of it. Discourse is the main order of business, albeit without words, and brotherhood the ties that bind, with the exceptional male dancers swathed in sarong-y costumes outlining their sleekly diverse personality types etched in the choreography.

But his "Firebird" was a big disappointment. The title character hardly had the illuminating focus of other productions -- even though Misty Copeland, big-boned and commanding in demeanor, seemed supremely well-cast for this glittery role. (The most publicized dancer today, she even appears in a Dannon yogurt ad running every 10 minutes on TV.)
Then there was Isabella Boylston, who it has been said, "dances the way a lark sings." By god, it's true. More petite, more nuanced, more musical, she too, as the Firebird, could make little headway in this strangely mismanaged staging. And why the maiden corps was outfitted in floppy gauze hats (Galina Solovyeva), with dresses to match, is beyond me. A total mish-mash.

Still, all of the Ballet Theatre performances enjoyed the immense benefit of a crack orchestra led by those champions David LaMarche and Ormsby Wilkins.

abt.jpgAmerican Ballet Theatre

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