LA Phil’s Salón Los Ángeles: An affecting concert in the new SOUND/STAGE series

United StatesUnited States Márquez, Gershwin: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Los Angeles Philharmonic / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor). Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, streaming from 2.10.2020. (JRo)

Los Angeles Philharmonic & Gustavo Dudamel (conductor) (c) Natalie Suarez

Arturo MárquezDanzón No.1

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

Attending a summer concert at the Hollywood Bowl, nestled in the steep yet serene terrain of the Hollywood Hills, can feel like a pilgrimage: committed concert-goers braving traffic through the Cahuenga Pass, lines of parked cars offering no easy escape, crowds of people finding their seats and, when they finally do, balancing food on their laps and eating hurriedly before the music begins. But when the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under a roof of stars, plays the first chords of a masterpiece, the journey finds its ultimate reward and meaning.

This year, there is no Hollywood Bowl hassle, no parking, no picnicking. The pandemic has shut all that down. What does exist is a series of online concert films entitled SOUND/STAGE, shot in early August and available on LA Phil’s website and on YouTube from 25 September through 20 November. Related interviews, essays and artwork are also available on the LA Phil’s website and well worth a visit (click here).

To protect musicians, elaborate preparations for their safety both backstage and onstage were made. Masks were mandatory for the string and percussion sections, and three-sided Plexiglas cubicles were designed for the brass and woodwinds. Sitting farther apart than usual created unaccustomed challenges for the musicians. However, the very challenges they encountered instilled a kind of gratitude in me and made me more attentive than I often feel watching and listening to a concert performance on screen.

The series opened on 25 September with a program entitled ‘Love in the Time of COVID’, featuring soprano J’Nai Bridges and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The second program, ‘Salón Los Ángeles’, debuted 2 October. Somehow, minus the crowds, minus the cool night air and minus the warmth of a collective experience, this 26-minute film managed to convey the explosive joy of making music and the resourcefulness of the human spirit. The beauty of the program was that, beginning with Marquez’s Danzón No.1 and concluding with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the musical momentum and the filming itself built to an ecstatic level, creating an emotionally charged experience.

Marquez’s nine Danzones pay homage to the golden age of danzón, a dance form that originated in Cuba and became popular in the Mexican state of Veracruz where the dance hall culture flourished in the 1940s, in particular at the Salón Los Ángeles, the oldest dance hall in Mexico City. No.1 is somewhat of a prologue to the next eight pieces. By Marquez’s account, he heard a street musician in Mexico City playing a kind of bolero-danzón on the saxophone. With its strange tempos, the piece fascinated him and his interest in the genre was born.

Plucked strings, a güiro, an alto saxophone, and a clarinet open with a lilting and flirtatious melody that gains in volume and heft with the addition of other instruments. The piece is infused with both innocence and sensuality – an entrancing combination. Dudamel, back where he belongs, took obvious joy in making music and clearly delighted in the singular beauty of the piece.

Accompanying the orchestral performance, members of the Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company danced in the empty aisles of the Hollywood Bowl. They were placed there more for atmosphere than for performance value. Seen mainly from the waist up and often in silhouette against a sultry orange light, the masked couples felt somewhat superfluous, but at the same time their presence added a cinematic quality to the video.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, Dudamel on the podium and members of the orchestra with Burt Hara on clarinet offered an impassioned rendering of Rhapsody in Blue. Interspersed throughout were drone shots of the empty Bowl and environs, encompassing the hills where I live, and dynamic views of the city with its unclogged freeways. Gershwin’s upbeat tribute to the big American city took on new meaning, turning an optimistic lens on the resiliency of a world city like Los Angeles to cope with the new reality. It was a tonic to the soul.

Jane Rosenberg

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