Mahler's spell plus Bell, Forsythe and Gheorghiu

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Joshua Bell.


Hurray for downtown LA. Where such events as dreams are made of stole into Disney Hall and the Chandler Pavilion. To think this city was once called a cultural wasteland. (while some today dub it "the coolest place.")

Just look at Disney's occupants, Gustavo Dudamel and his LA Philharmonic, collaborating with the likes of pianist Yefim Bronfman and violin master Joshua Bell. On top of that our resident podium chief gave us the gargantuan Mahler 9th Symphony, exploding a sense of the composer's outsized, Technicolor emotional palette.

So, did you think you'd been there before? Well, no one has ever heard too much of Mahler, especially not the 9th, not those it speaks to -- us, its contemporaries.

And not considering that this 20th-century composer languished in oblivion many years before Leonard Bernstein finally championed him -- and inspired the world to turn on to music that most easily exemplifies what neurologist Oliver Sacks meant when he said:
"Of all the arts, only music touches directly the emotions that we never could identify before."

No surprise, then, that the SRO audiences received this latest performance without a cough, without a whimper, 2200 listeners sitting in pin-drop silence -- even as Dudamel, at the end of its 90-minute marathon, held back applause far beyond the point of the last overtone fading away.

But that didn't minimize the powerful effect he and the band (including its marvelous soloists) branded on their massed listeners. Which is, in no small part, because Mahler translates feeling states into music -- graphically. Never mind that the Ländler, here, missed its grazioso sweetness to contrast with menacing swagger or that the overall robust attacks blurred some opposing elements. By the time we got to the finale and its death knell of fine, ominous cries and whispers, there was the inevitably profound Mahler spell cloaking the sound scape.

And thoughts turned to Barry Socher, the orchestra's beloved, long-time first violinist -- he died the night before -- to whom Dudamel dedicated the performance...

A week earlier, another momentous event took place, one that could look on paper like business as usual -- but wasn't. Joshua Bell? Perhaps the most over-achieving performer around? The Brahms Violin Concerto? Never, ever far from our ears? Well, suffice it to say, this outing with Dudamel and his forces, Bell doing Brahms, made the headline in my mind.

Especially because the violinist's recording, way back to 1996 with the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi, glitters like a multi-faceted diamond. So surely, after playing it hundreds of times since then, he would have lost something. But that was the magic at Disney Hall -- his way with this ever-gorgeous work only gained.

Bell played into the orchestra, as a member of it, emerging for his solos to find a myriad of colors with dazzlingly nuanced expressive turns on any single note -- supplicating, becalming, passionate -- as Dudamel et al found their pinpoint path with him.

So did they for Yefim Bronfman, returning to the Disney stage for another favorite, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. And if physical presence means anything then you must take note of this musician's manner.

A big man, he encompasses the instrument, he encompasses the music; from the moment his fingers touch the keyboard you see he has dominion over it. And he plays the way a king sits down to a feast set before him, with absolute power and relishing every fine tidbit.

That is to say delicacy did not elude Bronfman, reminding us of the axiom to play Beethoven with Chopin in the head and Chopin with Beethoven in mind. Delicacy and depth, suppleness and strength, all emerged under those virtuosic fingers.

Beyond Disney and across the street, the Music Center's Chandler Pavilion was the scene of its own major event: the city's newest resident dance force, William Forsythe, making a debut with three different companies. Remember him? Back in 1983 during that brief period when the Joffrey Ballet took up temporary tenancy at the Pavilion, this choreographer made the company a piece that caused tremors throughout the town.
It was "Love Songs,"a prescient dance illustrating irony in its title with lots of domestic thrashing about by its "lovers" -- laying bare a neurotic truth beneath its idealized surfaces.

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San Francisco Ballet dancers Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno in William Forsythe's "Pas/Parts 2016." Photo by Erik Tomasso.


Well, you can forget most of that. In the decades since, Forsythe has become an international figure, forging an abstract style that subtly suggests all kinds of modes, moods and original partnering relationships that never lose the complexity of choreographic design at its highest level.

Call him the dance-maker who re-enacts neoclassical ballet --everything on pointe, women with bun-sleek hair, all in leotards/tights. Others try and often fail by going through motions, just putting steps together or ugly distortions together. But he's the real thing.

How do you know? Because moment-to-moment you stay engaged with every movement compendium, every evolution from the beginning of a phrase, through to its end. There's an organicity at work, not a mere attachment of one pose to another.

Needless to say all the parts involved -- music, staging, lighting --find that same organic quality. That's what Forsythe is: an artist. When the curtain rose on "Pas/Parts 2016" the dancers were framed by soft white walls that gave off an illumination of purity, just like the dance itself, animated by its Thom Willems score. Within the movement context there were swirls of behavior inflections -- seductive, arrogant, wistful -- all suggested/reinforced by the music and performed to perfection by the superb San Francisco Ballet.

Tongue-in-cheekiness came with "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" to the Allegro from Schubert's 9th, as Pacific Northwest Ballet cavorted furiously with constantly grinning faces. And the big number, "Artifact Suite" -- a take-off on grand ballet spectacle with enough contrapuntal and canonic patterns for large corps to make Balanchine's head spin -- was a clever conundrum, danced brilliantly by the Houston Ballet.

But even if a casual audience can't penetrate the underside of all that Forsythe puts out there, it's still fascinating.

gheorghiu-dp.jpgSo was the concert by superstar Angela Gheorghiu (right), who returned to the Broad Stage, her Santa Monica oasis. If ever there was a magnet for soprano fanciers she is it. And at this visit she lit up the stage with a Romanian contingent: her countrymen tenor Calin Bratescu and conductor Tiberiu Soare leading a pickup orchestra.

No one yelled "Brava, mi diva" this time, but you can be sure that the wall-to-wall audience worshipped and rewarded its goddess with lusty "Bravas" all around.

And if you question what is a diva anyway, just know that it is one who delivers everything -- who basks in the knowledge that her every move, every gesture, is being gobbled up by fans fairly salivating at her presence and then sings, as she did again on this night, with a voice that is a liquid column of sound, smooth up and down the scale, with a lustrous top and that signature Gheorghiu legato.

It is truly the sound of velvet caressing the air, gripping listeners in its emotive power as well.

Best of all, among arias and orchestral pieces, was the church-yard scene between Tosca and Mario, this diva portraying an operatic diva who testily toys with her lover, the two of them bringing off their excerpt with tantalizing naturalism. But the whole evening was a gemütlich affair -- warmly eager and energized by Bucharestian spirit.

You can't do better for an opening fall season than this.


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