Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

At the Movies

July 11, 2011

The L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl with A.R. Rahman Photo: mine 2011

Sunday was my first visit to the Hollywood Bowl for the summer. It was the usual bundle of nostalgia-fueled expectations dashed by the bottle dropping, stack parking, acoustic disaster reality. Classical events here must be selected with great caution, and music from other genres tends to fare better in the haphazard concrete sound garden. The show was one of the Bowl’s world music events, which hosted another return visit from the beloved South Asian composer A.R. Rahman. Rahman has headlined previous India-themed programs at the Bowl as recently as 2006 and 2009. His Bollywood hit list is often mixed with appearances from other ensembles meant to highlight a variety of musical traditions from the Indian subcontinent. This year’s outing, however, offered less variety and despite the presence of a game and musically articulate Los Angeles Philharmonic, it was a sizable dud.

Last time around in 2009, Rahman led an ensemble through any number of his high-energy dance numbers and several high-voltage romantic power ballads complete with film clips and light show. But Rahman has been moving outside his Bollywood backyard more and more with American and International assignments like 127 Hours and Couples Retreat. As if to underscore this transition, the second half of Sunday’s program featured exclusively orchestra arrangements of Rahman’s film scores. There were still plenty of Bollywood favorites, but several compositions stemmed from films familiar to a broader audience including Lagaan and Slumdog Millionaire. The orchestra, conducted by Matt Dunkley, who made new orchestrations and arrangements for the scores specifically for concert performances, sounded lovely and rich as the highlight reels rolled above. But for the most part, the crowd seemed to be snoozing.

I couldn’t blame them. Rahman’s scores are beautiful and lush, but they are also surprisingly unvarying. It was difficult to distinguish one from the next as the night wore on. Applause was fitful when it came about and there was audible restlessness from some quarters of the crowd. Rahman at one point thanked the audience for supporting something other than a "rock show", but the dye was cast. Repeated calls for Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire hit “Jai Ho” were heard. And when it arrived in a clunky uncoordinated version at the end, it couldn’t have been more disappointing. Apparently the folks at the sound board had drifted off by this time of night as well, as one could alternately hear the vocalists or the orchestra or the prerecorded beats, but never all three at the same time.

Rahamn was joined on the program by the Bollywood Step Dancers of the Sher Foundation and the ensemble “Rhythms of Rajasthan” both of who were reprising their colorful and energetic 2009 performances. Sandwiched between them was Karsh Kale, a tabla player and film composer in his own right. His easy listening take on South Asian rhythms had a contemporary feel, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being at a mid-90s Bruce Hornsby and the Range show. In the end what was most disappointing about the show was not that any of the film music wasn't professionally done, it was that it was barely distinguishable from anything else you might hear on any other film soundtrack. And sometimes, it may in fact be better to give the people what they want - especially at the Hollywood Bowl.


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