A Tchaikovsky cartoon (or not) and a Sondheim show stopper

sondheim-show-dp.jpgSondheim on Sondheim. Photo: Mathew Imaging

Will the real Tchaikovsky please stand up? The one who wrote transcendent music that stormed the heavens, waltzed in chandeliered palaces and drank to the depths of morbidity?

Well, the Russian composer did actually climb out of the bin of busy name-traders when the LA Philharmonic played his Fifth Symphony at Hollywood Bowl. It was eminently reassuring to hear the whole musical mind materialize -- thanks to the superb playing led by Rafael Payare.

And when Dudamel himself opened the Bowl season -- with ABT's starry dancers on the bill -- he illuminated some of Tchaikovsky's most striking ballet characterizations, letting us hear them as though for the first time. I never knew, for instance, that the bent-over, old crone of a wicked fairy, Carabosse, ("Sleeping Beauty") was a gargantuan menace, just from the music. That's the long and short of it.

But earlier, at the Music Center, we had Boris Eifman's bio-ballet "Tchaikovsky, Pro et Contra," an over-packed epic that leaves you spent in its bathos. Over what? The composer's homosexuality -- not to mention its kaleidoscopic use of sketches from "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker" and "Eugene Onegin."

And even more, there was Hershey Felder's Tchaikovsky bio-drama at the Wallis. (More on this later.)

Still, it took Tchaikovsky's own full-length, uninterrupted symphony to give us the non-verbal, non-danced portrait of the creator and to demystify his allure, his great musical powers -- not some puerile, billboard concoction of his life's personal turmoil.

Payare, a baton-wielder who is yet another incarnation of Venezuelan music men (and an ironic success message in contrast to the besieged nation's roiling state), even looks a bit like Dudamel: somewhat slight, with a massive mop of black curls draping his face.

But his stick technique is nowhere near as defined or refined. What mattered more, though, were the sophisticated musical values he drew from the orchestra. It was an all-enhanced reading -- with thanks to Dudamel's previous rehearsals -- that dug deep into the fabric without focusing on the commonly asserted bombast and spectacle. Here we could believe that Tchaikovsky was a composer whose hyper-expressive chronicles were structured in complexity, yet not slighting them.

Too bad, though, that re-creators of Tchaikovsky's life glom onto just the emotional trauma surrounding it. Yes, many believe that he committed suicide by cholera, deliberately infecting himself to that end. Yes, he was often overwhelmed with depression. Yes, being gay back in the 19th century took a heavy toll socially and legally, not to mention the despair felt from his thwarted desire to lead a tolerable straight life.

But just imagine handing this scenario to a movie auteur, Ken Russell, or to the Eifman Ballet choreographer, or to that pianist-actor-writer Hershey Felder who weaves stage dramas of famous composers. All of them are capable of exalting hysteria to the highest degree, given half a chance. And I can report they did just that -- instead of drawing a true artistic composite. Remember the powerful Nijinsky portrait, just last year at UCLA, the show created by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson? Think back.

Curiously, Eifman's 2005 "Anna Karenina, " whose score also used healthy doses of "Serenade for Strings" and the "Pathétique" Symphony, was not only within the choreographer's grasp, but it marked his highest standard. Lighting, sets, costumes forged to make a work that was extravagantly cinematic and theatrical and coherent. Maybe the Tolstoy novel set a course that the choreographer could sensibly (and brilliantly) follow.

As for Felder's opus, all I can think is that the longer he continues down his list of composer bios, the more clichéd the staged result. It's one thing to send up detractors Leonard Bernstein encountered early in his career, but when Felder uses exactly the same cartoonish takes on Tchaikovsky's senior Russian academy naysayers, we have to think we've been here too often.

Overall, the story rolls out as a storybook tale for sixth-graders as told by a doily-minded grandmother -- overly earnest and simplistic.Surely Tchaikovsky was not that. What's more, Felder's intermittent trips to the onstage piano, playing excerpts here and there, seem arbitrary.

Back at the Bowl things improved mightily. First of all, the Philharmonic's artistic/marketing mavens certainly know how to woo, uplift and inform the city's cross-sections. How about a program of Beethoven's Ninth (its joyous idealism a breather in our time of governmental degradation) joined with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Lincoln Portrait," narrated by none other than Vin Scully. Is that a coup, or what?

We remember back eight years ago when Los Angeles welcomed Dudamel to its cultural citadel, Disney Hall, and the podium star then returned the favor at the Bowl with the free concert, featuring Beethoven's Ninth, the one he titled "Bienvenidos Los Angeles, " bridging all the Americas.

This performance was even better, of course. Because now, he and the orchestra read each other like a still-stimulated married couple who can luxuriate in the back-and-forth of knowing dialogue maneuvers. Not incidentally, the sound system currently delivers quite an upfront punch, without too much distortion or unnaturalness.

Before all that, at the opening of summer's Cahuenga Pass showplace, we had yet another encounter with dance. And even though the LAPhil/Bowl ongoing arrangement with ballet eminences seriously deprives them of their theatrical impact, Dudamel and Co. are going for the impossible: trying to follow these lovelies prancing on the stage apron -- while sitting behind them!

misty-copeland-marcelo-gomes.jpgMarcelo Gomes and Misty Copeland. Photo: Mathew Imaging

Still, who could discount Marcelo Gomes as the White Swan undulating elegantly with muscular power as Matthew Bourne's male hero in the Tchaikovsky classic. How I'd love to see him on a proper stage. Or Natalia Osipova with Sergei Polunin, their starkly reined-in, pale pathos as Giselle and Albrecht. Or even the most publicized ballerina of all, Misty Copeland (a Time magazine cover, 60 Minutes subject, big-time endorsement queen). She danced Juliet to Gomes' Romeo, a wonderful match-up as the star-cross'd lovers who have a pin-point definition, physical thrust, and energy to spare.

But the best Bowl production put on by the Philharmonic and its resident maestro (who spun around to face the 18,000-strong crowd -- a sellout -- and sing a few lines from one song) had to be "Sondheim on Sondheim."

It was glorious. And you can be sure every Sondheim fan beat a path to this one-night-only shrine. To wit, the terrific orchestra (not a scratchy pit band) under an inspired Dudamel, the cast, the arrangements, the four-part vocals, the choreography, the show excerpts, the interpolated interview clips with the master, the nostalgia, the songs with their subtle, poetic meanings that make us cry -- "Losing My Mind," "Not a Day Goes By." All of it.

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