The happiest sounds wafting across the plaza Saturday afternoon at the Hollywood Bowl had a Latin cadence. Spanish, spoken by the crowd of families, picnickers with their wine bottles and high school kids in their East L.A. punk clothes; Spanish sung by Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad, entertaining the masses streaming in for Gustavo Dudamel's welcome bash.
Diversity was programmed into "¡Bienvenido Gustavo!," the concert honoring the new musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But it didn't feel artificial, as it can at such community-oriented events. The presence of student players on the pop portion of the bill, which led up to Dudamel's entrance, was partly responsible for the unpretentious mood. More than that, it came from an attitude that Dudamel seems to represent: a celebration of music as a multilingual, integrative force.
The five acts that played brief sets embodied the polyglot heart of pop music -- and of classical music too. Selected by the Bowl's programmers and its artist advisory committee, the performers spanned gospel, jazz, Cuban and Mexican regional music, soul, rock and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. More important than the range of genres represented was the fluidity with which they mingled; it was a manifestation of Dudamel's approach, which seeks to welcome all comers into the musical experience.
The Los Angeles luminaries onstage trumpeted their enthusiasm for this attitude. "As a band, we always mix genres, cultures, generations, and now to have a musical director who does the same, it's awesome," said Ulises Bella of Ozomatli, the Latin hip-hop fusion band, during one introductory segment. Like much of the day's banter, this statement was in English and Spanish, now the unofficial parlance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The most exciting musical performances blended Latin and African American idioms. Cuban-born pianist Alfredo Rodriguez began in a New York-flavored stride mode, then smoothly shifted into salsa, tapping out a beat with a foot pedal. (The song he performed was called, appropriately, "Crossing the Border.")
Later, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos teamed with Taj Mahal, drummer Cougar Estrada and the Bay Area band Los Cenzontles, effortlessly moving from roots rock to Tejano music to shaggy-dog blues.
In between those two standout acts came several that stressed the day's other theme: the power of youth and the need for music education. "Art education for the children!" shouted Flea, bassist for the Chili Peppers and co-founder of the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, after performing a charming medley of Stevie Wonder songs with the school's ensemble.
The highlight of the set by gospel luminary Andraé Crouch and the New Christ Memorial Church choir came from 10-year-old Roman Collins, who took a solo that wasn't perfect pitch-wise but included some house-burning big notes. Soloists from the Silverlake group's singers and players similarly mixed charm with raw talent. (Also adorable: little Lola Selby, who sang the line about "playing doctor" from Wonder's "I Wish" with a very stern look and some serious vibrato.)
The L.A. County High School for the Arts jazz band proved its mettle by backing Herbie Hancock on fluent, assured renditions of his tunes "One Finger Snap" and "Maiden Voyage."
These green virtuosos represented all the hope that's being pinned to Dudamel. More relevant, perhaps, is another aspect of their youthfulness: their ability to think beyond, or let's call it before, the divisions that make music marketable and sometimes inaccessible.
Dudamel's presence in L.A. might bring many new listeners to the classical repertoire, but in pop terms it can help push forward a trend that's already overtaking all music: the collapse of hierarchies and the emergence of new, cosmopolitan forms amid a clatter of languages and styles.