Take your pick. The big screen with intimate close-ups and high-tech sonics at Hollywood Bowl, courtesy of the LA Philharmonic. Or the old-time glory of glittering Russian ballet downtown at the Music Center's Chandler Pavilion.
Well, you could've greeted the summer with both and come out ahead -- by visiting two entirely different worlds. A telling, grateful contrast.
Gustavo Dudamel and Co. settled into the Bowl's vast open spaces in Cahuenga Pass where 18,000 people can, from high up in the bleachers, view either the tiny stage figures making music -- or, shift their eyes to giant screens and see eyebrows arching on the maestro's face (as well as the ring on a horn player's finger).
Either way the scene is enticing (once you get there!) And the sound, well, it's not anything like that in Disney Hall, the orchestra's home.
But neither, these days, do we peer at the stage and hear what seems like a small table radio trying to deliver the music at hand. No, it's at full-throttle now.
Too close to stage and the result can be similar to the fat, polished, homogenized, unnatural thing we often hear at movie theaters carrying the Met Opera simulcasts (or superhero blockbusters). But a little farther back in the boxes above promenade 2 and the amplification comes close to outdoor perfection.
Naturally, for such a broad swath of Angelenos, the fare is familiar. One war-horse night we had Dudamel in a Russian program -- with Behzod Abduraimov in Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto (ah, yes, if you recall, it was turned to popular song, "Full Moon and Empty Arms" and even used in the movie "September Affair" with Joan Fontaine as the concert pianist playing it).
Together, at the Bowl, they and the orchestra gave the ever-romantic work a passionate/lyrical reading that swept the swooning audience under its spell. So, too, did Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" keep the imagery going, in their hands.
But Dudamel's concert version of Verdi's "Otello" proved to be a difficult task in the mammoth amphitheater. For starters, it's a dark piece, aside from its enveloping love music. "Carmen" or "Bohème" fare better. What's more, it requires intimacy -- and staging. Its quietly brooding, suspenseful moments get lost in the open air.
Still, the cast did not let that cramp their style. In the title role Russell Thomas's tenor came across with its ear-delighting timbre intact (only on the high, forceful "Esultate," a killer opening test for any warrior Moor, was there a bit of uncertainty). Julianna Di Giacomo made a knowingly doomed Desdemona, capitalizing on her welcome spinto territory rather than frail lyricism. And George Gagnidze, as Iago, rolled out his sinister scheme rigorously.
Also side-stepping from typical Bowl-proof programming was Thomas Adés's "Tevot" (2007) a roaring piece that depicts Noah's Ark and the storm it survives. Big-boned, bold, thrusting, it suggests lots of diverse activities, sometimes simultaneously and utilizing every choir with intricate connections to each other.
And who better to be at the helm than the composer himself, in this case? With Adés waving his baton, we saw a take-charge leader, one who gives vigorous, detailed cues that illuminate graphically the score's clear shape and a varied dynamic scheme.
The British composer/conductor, warmly personable in his comments to the audience, went from there to Beethoven -- with Iceland's pianist Vikingur Olafsson, a tall, lanky, bespectacled, schoolboy type who played the 2nd Concerto somewhat stiffly but masterfully. Then came the 7th Symphony, just the thing for the Phil and Adés to gallop away with breathlessly -- on the breeze of the summer night air.
But for sheer theatrical dazzle, the indoor variety, nothing quite overwhelms like American Ballet Theatre's staging of "La Bayadère," that full-fledged super-spectacle of grand opera-house tradition. Where else would you get the Marius Petipa Russian Imperial choreographic brand, the St. Petersburg pre-cursor of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet?
Well, Ballet Theatre brought its revival (staged by Natalia Makarova) to the Music Center Pavilion and simply wowed the crowds. While you can almost forget the notion of deep moralistic parable in this story of a Hindu Giselle, it's the mighty force of ballet imagery, namely the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene, that cannot fail to enthrall, as performed here.
This iconic "white act" starts with the corps drifting down a ramp one at a time to Ludwig Minkus's barcarolle -- step-step-step-arabesque-stepback-arch backward. And thanks to conductor Ormsby Wilkins leading the terrific pick-up orchestra there was no dragging weightedness but a lift to each repeat. It ends in scrupulous splendor, the 24 coryphees arrayed across the stage in rows of 6, arms extended in second, on pointe and delicately atremble in a one-heart-beat, breathtaking moment. A knock-out.
But that wasn't all, of course. Isabella Boylston as Nikiya, the temple dancer entreating her lover to forsake his arranged marriage to the Rajah's daughter, was the very model of a Kirov ballerina in lovely, physical form (proportions, turnout, arches). And her undulating exotica (shades of shiva) seemed to grow naturally from that form, as did the pathos of her surrender to death.
What electrified the performance, though, was Jeffrey Cirio. His Solor, the warrior who fought for her (but not hard enough, just as Albrecht did not for Giselle) partnered his beloved ardently -- he also soared in the air as though powered by helium, doing double cabrioles, his body a supple, boneless, jointless thing merely physicalizing emotion.
Best-known to the wide public was Misty Copeland, as Gamzatti, the regal bride-to-be. Next to the above leads she paled but still managed to vent her hell-cat rivalry and then telegraph an abject sense of loss.
One thing to remember, though, about "Bayadère" is the genre that defines it, aside from Russian Imperial ballet. It's the Ludwig Minkus score that has a generous amount of rinky-dink music, in other words, circus-y stuff. Because while John Lanchbery's arrangement glorifies the narrative moments beyond their silent-film cheap dramatics, Minkus happily accommodates the sudden intrusion of classical divertissements You know, those de rigueur tutu-and-tiara affairs -- a pizzicato parade of pretties that also displays the dancers' hard-won classical virtuosity.
But virtuosity of another sort is required for current dance modes, displayed by several local troupes overflowing on local stages.
At the Wallis there was Body Traffic with Sidra Bell's determinedly edgy "Beyond the Edge..." which looks great on this blackened stage. It's got the armature of balletic elegance (and even Ohad Naharin's Gaga). Its movements also meld into natural body comportment to suggest a clubby chic in its costumes, lighting, demeanor. Altogether a deeply engrossing piece.
Easy appeal via pop nostalgia is customarily on the menu as well -- this time with Matthew Neenan's "A Million Voices." Here it was Peggy Lee's, in recordings of Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen songs, suggesting those past days of seeming innocence, along with some of its underlying consternation. But the finale gave us Lee's existential "Is That All There Is?" with an assortment of Fellini-like characters parading across the stage.
More to the otherworldly side was the Barak Ballet's "Desert Transport" by Nicolas Blanc at Santa Monica's Broad Stage. Its major impact comes from Mason Bate's mountainous score, a big, gorgeous, orchestral essay that suggests narrative all by itself. Smartly, the choreography follows its cues by way of gestural dance but at all times showing off the dancers' exceptional technique and expressive qualities.
While Melissa Barak's own works stay locked in well-crafted, flattering configurations of the body-ballet-beautiful, she's wise to add on diversity. More would be even better.