Times, tastes, fashions and spectacles have changed in the past half-century. The Music Center has noticed.
In 1964, the Memorial Pavilion, the first of the Music Center's four theaters and the one that would later be named for Dorothy Chandler, opened to a formal crowd, studded with stars. Women wore mink. Zubin Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program that ended with Beethoven's Violin Concerto featuring Jascha Heifetz as soloist. A couple of days later, Mehta led Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Saturday night was the 50th anniversary of that opening gala, and it was time for a 2014 update.
The curtain rose on four unidentified string quartet players, each in a disco cage patterned after the Chandler chandeliers. The capsules rose out of ducts in the orchestra pit. The players, loudly amplified over a rock beat, strutted through a hopped-up collage of hokey classical favorites. The "Ode to Joy" from the Beethoven Ninth was interpreted as several seconds of electronic dance music. Images of the Music Center were flashed on a backdrop. The lighting took its cues from Las Vegas.
That opening "Crystal Reflections," the single cheesiest anything I have seen on a Music Center stage, was followed by an homage to Dorothy Buffum Chandler, the force behind the Music Center. It is impossible to believe she would have been pleased.
The nature of the evening was as a tribute to the Music Center's four resident companies — the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Opera and Center Theatre Group — along with the venue's program for presenting dance. Each of these residents knows how to put on a show; each has made music and or theater history.
But rather than rely on in-house expertise, the Music Center, which administers the campus, hired an outside outfit called Corporate Magic, normally responsible for creating shows tailored to the needs of auto manufacturers or a Republican National Convention.
Although Mrs. Chandler's motivation for the Music Center was as a home for the L.A. Phil, and the first public words spoken on the stage were Mehta's opening-night remark to the audience, "We like the acoustics," Corporate Magic appears to have little use for either the orchestra or the acoustics.
With one brief exception, everything Saturday was aggressively amplified. Because the L.A. Phil had its regular subscription concert in Disney Hall and couldn't change its schedule at the relative last minute when the gala was put together, the L.A. Opera orchestra, seated on bandstands at the rear of the stage and conducted by Grant Gershon, became the house ensemble. A stream of guest hosts, reading from bright monitors in the back of the hall, introduced each segment with effusive superlatives.
L.A. Opera offered the glorious banquet scene from John Adams' "Nixon in China," written for sensitive amplification, not an overbearing booming variety. For no special reason, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who at least knows how to use a microphone, sang three numbers, including an enchanting "La Vie en Rose."
The Center Theatre Group stole the show with brief excerpts from some of the groundbreaking new work it developed in the Mark Taper Forum, especially Edward James Olmos returning for the opening of "Zoot Suit" and the closing scene from "Angels in America." But the same could not be said for a medley of excerpts from musical shows, such as "Miss Saigon" and "Phantom of the Opera," which had long runs at the Ahmanson.
What to do with the L.A. Phil? A last-minute solution was arranged. Gustavo Dudamel happened to be conducting Esa-Pekka Salonen's overture, "Helix," and that Disney Hall performance was beamed live across the street to accompany a new dance piece by Justin Peck for L.A. Dance Project. "I hope it works," Dudamel told the audience in one of the few unscripted and lighthearted moments.
Other than Salonen's score losing much of its sonic allure over loudspeakers, the collaboration did work, with Peck's six dancers effectively conveying a complex study in time and motion leading to exhausted collapse.
On and on, an intermission-less variety show proceeded. There was a tribute to the Academy Awards, once broadcast from the Chandler. Although a Music Center money-maker, the Oscars used to disrupt the campus and force an angry L.A. Phil out of its home for two weeks of its season. But the tribute belonged if only to show where Corporate Magic got its ideas.
Another long-gone Music Center institution, Civic Light Opera, was not acknowledged. But Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" was. Phoebe Pan, a 17-year-old pianist selected to show off the Music Center's education wing, had the misfortune to come last and be amplified to within an inch of her piano strings. But she held up impressively in an obscure showpiece by Alfred Grunfeld based on themes from Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" (and like much else this evening, not noted in the program).
There was one revelation. Gershon conducted his Master Chorale in Morten Lauridsen's beautiful "O Magnum Mysterium," sung from the lip of the extended stage without microphones. It sounded fabulous, each voice having a tactile presence.
The Chandler's problematic acoustics can work simply by moving musicians farther forward. But that has never been a viable option because it cuts down on visibility from the most expensive founders circle seats.
If the gala, which had admirably egalitarian ticket prices ranging from $35 to $200,000 (for a primo table at the after-concert party), raised big bucks to move the Music Center forward, all will be forgiven.
But may the Music Center now proceed as though it will still matter in 2064. That means being true to its mission and never, ever, again outsourcing stage magic to a corporate enterprise.