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Practice, Practice, Practice

January 08, 2011

The Prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo

This weekend brought the first performance from the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 2011 and a return for music director Gustavo Dudamel to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage. I saw the performance Saturday night, which was odd in many ways right from the beginning when L.A. Phil President Deborah Borda came on stage to announce that the evening’s show was a rehearsal of sorts for the big live concert broadcast scheduled to take place the next day, Jan 9. She warned there would be a brief fanfare before Vanessa Williams, who’d been tapped to host the following day’s broadcast, comes on stage to rehearse her welcome to movie theater audiences. She also pointed out the presence of arguably the most critical players in the Los Angeles Philharmonic during Dudamel’s time with the organization – the cameras. Those devices and their operators are seemingly everywhere when Dudamel is around. The lackluster L.A. Philharmonic season opening gala from October was recently released on DVD, and Dudamel has been everywhere, glad-handing it with Tavis Smiley and Jay Leno in the run up to the orchestra's movie screen debut across North America. If the strategy behind all this has been to sell tickets to live shows, it seems to be working. The Dudamel-led concerts this week and next have been more or less sold out for some time, and I’ve seen more folks in and around Walt Disney Concert Hall groveling for tickets recently than I care to admit.

After Borda’s comments, things got under way, but it was a long and drawn-out evening by any record. The rehearsal of backstage elements for the broadcast apparently dragged out some of the pauses for the in-house audience a little. In fact, the break between the first two pieces on the program ran a few minutes longer than usual, prompting one disgruntled gentleman to shout into the waiting silence, “This is a total disrespect to your audience.” Grumbling ensued and after a moment, a half-hearted attempt at why-are-we-waiting clapping arose, dividing the audience, which had an equal number of shushers. And while I found this impatience unattractive, I can also understand feeling put-off by having the full-price ticket you bought turn out to be for a final dress rehearsal for something else as opposed to an actual seasoned performance.

Of course, in between all of the lights, camera, and action was a concert to be heard. There was some lovely playing throughout, but overall, it was fairly underwhelming. It was easily the most ambitious of the programs the L.A. Philharmonic will include in its live broadcast trio of shows this year, but that isn’t saying much when you consider it included John Adams’ Slonimsky's Earbox, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The first half was populated by the two 20th-century American composers that it is now clear Dudamel favors by the frequency with which they’ve crept up in his programming. He’s toured Adam’s recent City Noir around the country, and Slonimsky’s Earbox was an interesting work to start the evening with. Dudamel doesn’t have much of a touch for Adams’ work, but the piece bubbled along nicely despite its sloppiness. The Bernstein/Dudamel connection is much harder for me to fathom. Dudamel's first shot into the limelight was on the back of Bernstein's dances from West Side Story, and the composer's Symphony No. 2 was toured as well last year. But, as a friend of mine commented this week, Bernstein’s music is notable in that it isn’t Copland’s, yet has the distinct disadvantage of not being Ives’. Bernstein’s first symphony, subtitled “Jeremiah”, evokes the world and events of the Old Testament prophet and has some pretty vocal lines for a mezzo in the third movement, sung here nicely by Kelley O’Connor. I can’t say it really connected to me, though, and I wasn't sure what to make of it here.

The evening concluded with the Beethoven, which was what one has come to expect from Dudamel at this point. It did sound well rehearsed on Saturday, but was plagued with histrionic tempi. The first two movements were painfully slow to the point of annoyance. Things eventually picked up speed, but never got much more transparent or precise. In the end Dudamel wrapped up the show with his preferred big flourish. The audience gave their most enthusiastic response of the evening at this point, apparently forgiving any perceived slight from earlier on. They earned an encore, an excerpt from Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1, played full-throttle and off balance. And then the whole long, exhausting thing was over as we could hear Vanessa Williams over the PA system chattering away backstage about all the excitement that everyone had over the show. Clearly she and the L.A. Philharmonic were going to be prepared for the live cameras rolling tomorrow.



Vanessa Williams? Why Vanessa Williams?
Why not? Actually, there is some precedent for this in that I believe that the Met used Alec Baldwin for one of its live broadcasts once. Or somebody did.

The Met is lucky to have lots of opera celebrities around the house in rehearsals or whatever for something else when they do their broadcasts. In LA, we have celebrities.
Maybe they can get Paul Reubens for the next one?
I was thinking more along the lines of Pia Zadora. She'd be funnier
Yes! A much better choice, to be sure.
A "long held silence" at the end of Beethoven's Seventh? Are you kidding? That is an absolute impossibility. The silence occurred at the end of the Bernstein's First.
Of course, you're right. I think I was so relieved when the show was finally over that I rearranged this particular element in my mind. Thanks for the correction.
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