By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
“Tchaikovsky meets Shakespeare”
Sunday, March 13 • Walt Disney Concert Hall (telecast in movie theaters)
Since the Metropolitan Opera began its series of high-definition telecasts in movie theatres in 2006, opera companies around the world have watched with interest, envy and even perhaps alarm as the telecasts have grown in popularity to the point where last year more than 2 million watched in what are now more than 1,500 venues worldwide (620 in the U.S. alone) and the company reportedly showed a revenue surplus of $8 million on the venture.
Opera is both a visual and aural medium so the high-def concept seems uniquely suited to the Met’s telecasts, but it was probably inevitable that at least one orchestra would try to capitalize on the concept. Furthermore, it’s no real surprise that the first orchestra to telecast to a large number of movie theatres (450 in the U.S. and Canada) would be the Los Angeles Philharmonic, situated in the heart of the entertainment industry and led by its charismatic and photogenic music director, Gustavo Dudamel.
For the second of three telecasts in this inaugural season of “LA Phil Live,” the orchestra took a page from the Met’s book because this concert combined visual, spoken word and music as Tchaikovsky met Shakespeare this afternoon (this was the fourth consecutive performance of the program at Disney Hall and was telecast live into the Phil’s theater network).
I didn’t see the original telecast in January but this program had many elements working for it and they combined to produce a breathtaking result. It was also the type of concert that orchestras are attempting in order to reach new audiences, in this case, Shakespeare lovers as well as those wanting to check out the Phil and Dudamel.
I saw the telecast at the Alhambra Renaissance, a complex of 14 theaters that also shows the Met telecasts. About 150 people were on hand for the 2 p.m. Phil telecast and nearly everyone stayed for the entire telecast, which lasted nearly two hours and played without an intermission. That, in retrospect, is shorter than most movies but it made for a long concert experience both in the hall and the movie theaters, although it didn’t seem long.
Prior to the actual telecast was a series promo by Dudamel. The afternoon opened at 2:02 p.m. with the 30-year-old curly haired maestro giving a 10-minute introduction to the program interspersed with clips of rehearsal footage. Despite his continued protestations about the quality of his English, Dudamel is actually quite charming with his accent and makes a gregarious host in this kind of format. Among the things he noted was that silence is crucial in the three pieces programmed, an admonition that proved to be important as the afternoon wore on.
Stage director Kate Burton (daughter of the late Richard Burton) spent a few minutes extolling the glories of Disney Hall, directed the staging portion of the afternoon, and served as the program’s hostess. She gushed over Gustavo properly and the intermission-less program didn’t give her too many chances to be intrusive.
The concept was to meld scenes from Hamlet, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet with the approximately 20-minute-long fantasy-overtures that Tchaikovsky wrote about each play. Supple lighting (by a person whose name I missed in the ending credits) helped to morph from the stage action to the music and from play to play.
In the plays, those in the concert hall apparently saw and heard a much different performance than what we saw on the big screen. One of the things that Disney Hall doesn’t do well is spoken word and two people who saw the concert in the hall reported they had trouble understanding the actors; on the other hand, those of us in the movie theaters had absolutely no problem (the spoken words were obviously being sent through a different audio feed). Moreover, the actors were shown in close up on the movie screen, something not really practical if you were inside Disney Hall.
There was no attempt to set a context for any of the plays; whether or not you feel that was a hindrance probably depends somewhat on how much you’ve been exposed to Shakespeare. Matthew Rhys opened the program soliloquizing dramatically as Hamlet in what are surely some of the most recognizable lines in theater (e.g., “To be or not to be”).
Midway through the segment, the cameras shifted to the organ-loft balcony where Malcolm McDowell portrayed King Hamlet’s ghost with the proper gravitas and a seductive English accent. McDowell was the only actor to appear in all three segments and the only one who used a script. Seeing McDowell tucked amid the organ pipes that were lit in red was one of the day’s more effective visuals.
Out of a darkened stage at the end of all of this, Joseph Pereira’s timpani roll led the orchestra into the Hamlet overture. At the conclusion, the lights faded to black and then illuminated McDowell again in the organ for one of Prospero’s speech from The Tempest, followed by an orchestral performance that featured a surging storm sequence and a sonorous love motive.
The afternoon concluded with Romeo and Juliet,in the most complicated of the stagings, which included platforms on either side at the rear of the orchestra and a stepladder that took the place of a balcony stairway. Orlando Bloom as Romeo scampered along orchestra-level railings and up and down platforms and the ladder, ending up alongside Anika Noni Rose, who posed coyly as Juliet and delivered her lines wistfully. McDowell ended the scene with the final lines of Friar Laurence while the two lovers lay in death’s embrace.
Dudamel’s reading of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture (by far the best known of the three musical selections) was sweeping and epic and ended with almost unimaginable power that left me limp in my seat.
None of the three pieces on the program are top-drawer Tchaikovsky but Dudamel and the orchestra performed all of three of them splendidly, apart from an occasional smudgy horn entrance.
The sound in Disney Hall is obviously far more ravishing than in the movie theater, but that is hardly a fair comparison — few, if any, halls in the world sound as glorious as Disney Hall. Yesterday in my movie theatre the strings seemed prominent all afternoon and balances between them and other sections occasionally wavered but theaters with a different sound systems may have produced different results. My overall impression was that I’ve heard much worse in some concert halls and we won’t even talk about outside venues.
The camera work was much as we’ve come to expect from programs such as “Live from Lincoln Center” or “Great Performances.” Most, although not all, of the images focusing on individual performers made sense. Whether you like these kinds of cutaway sequences is a personal preference (it doesn’t bother me, for the most part). One of my kvetches is that the closeup shots are often too in your face; backing off a tad might give a better sense of both the performer and his or her instrument. The oboe gets plenty of solos in these Tchaikovsky pieces, which meant that Principal Obost Ariana Ghez got lots of air time, deservedly so because her playing was ravishing.
Dudamel received what I considered to be a reasonable amount of airtime, although the camera often cut away just as he was making one of his patented stylish cues. If you, like me, enjoy watching his hands and facial gestures, this was an enjoyable afternoon, although the kvetch above applies to Gustavo, as well.
In his Los Angeles Times review (HERE), Mark Swed commented negatively about the intrusive nature of the cameras for those in the hall (it's not a new complaint by Mark). Neither of the two people who commented on the spoken word above even noticed the cameras and, although I wasn’t in the hall this weekend I don’t remember being affected by the cameras in the January concert — at least not enough to mention it in my review). It probably depends on where you're sitting in the hall. Moreover, as Swed predicted, some of the stagecraft visible in the hall wasn’t at all apparent in the movie theaters.
What all of this means for the future of “LA Phil Live” isn’t clear. There was a significant amount of applause in my theater at the conclusion of the concert, particularly when you consider that the movie-goers were getting no feedback from the musicians. Those present seemed to love that Dudamel, the orchestra and actors turned around to acknowledge applause from those behind and to the sides of the hall (this has always been a Dudamel trademark).
The final program in the inaugural series will be on June 5, the final concert of the orchestra’s indoor season (LINK). This, like the first program, will be another all-orchestral affair: Dudamel conducting Brahms' Symphony No. 4 and Double Concerto with the Capuçon brothers, Renaud and Gautier, as violin and cello soloist, respectively in the concerto. No plans have been announced for next season’s schedule or, indeed, if there will even be a next season.
There’s clearly a market for the series; whether it’s large enough to justify the expense isn’t known (it’s worth noting that it took the Met five seasons to reach a revenue-surplus level). The ticket price (my ducat today was $18; most theaters charge a little more) is cheaper than any ticket at Disney Hall, especially when you factor in transportation and parking downtown, and this concept advances one of the Phil’s long-term objectives: to find ways to make concerts more affordable. Of course, the Phil hopes that some of those who begin in movie theaters will gravitate downtown.
Moreover, those of who live in Southern California can get very blasé about the number of fine orchestras we have from which to choose. In addition to the Phil this weekend, you could have attended concerts by the Pasadena Symphony, Long Beach Symphony, Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra, American Youth Symphony and New West Symphony (and maybe others).
But outside of this area, the chance to see a world-class orchestra, even in a movie theater, must seem heaven sent for many. Moreover, the Phil has try to encourage orchestras to tie in marketing campaigns to the Phil telecasts but how many are using that opportunity is unknown (no one did so at my Alhambra theater).
To this observer, the format of today’s Tchaikovsky concert seems tailor-made for telecasts, but the only Sunday concert next season that would seem to fit that mode would be the May 20 staged performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Other potential Dudamel Sunday concerts next season would be:
• Oct. 2: Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
• Oct. 9: all Mendelssohn, including the Violin Concerto, with Janine Jansen as soloist
• Oct. 30: Kurtág’s Grabstein fu?r Stefan; Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, with Richard Goode as soloist
• Jan. 15: Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, with soprano Miah Persson; and Songs of a Wayfarer with baritone Thomas Hampson as soloist
• June 29: Mahler Symphony No. 6
• Feb. 5: Mahler Symphony No. 9)
• May 27: Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with an as-yet unnamed soloist.
In addition to Don Giovanni, my bets would be Oct. 2 and Jan. 15.
FYI: Mark Swed reports on his theater experience HERE.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.