Music review: Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Phil on the big screen

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‘Amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing …’

So exclaimed a woman at a Century City cinema Sunday afternoon as the credits rolled by. Maybe the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a hit on its hands with LA Phil Live.

Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe … .

Paying the same $23 as a bench seat behind the orchestra in Walt Disney Concert Hall 10 miles away, enough people turned up at this AMC 15 to require the use of two screens. Even the smaller runoff theater, in which I found a seat online, was nearly full for a live theater-cast of Gustavo Dudamel conducting this week’s L.A. Phil program of symphonies by Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein, along with John Adams’ “Slonimsky’s Earbox.”


Clearly there is an attraction to going to a movie theater for a concert and seeing a charismatic conductor as a proper matinee idol on the big screen. In this, Dudamel did not disappoint. He was enjoyably unscripted in his mugging for the camera and a definitely scripted host, Vanessa Williams. Best of all, he explained aspects of Bernstein and Beethoven that, along with terrific rehearsal footage, provided genuine added value.

You don’t, of course, have to dress for a Century City shopping center (although the L.A. Phil did, wearing its stuffy evening tails rather than the usual matinee business attire). Popcorn is permitted (the theater has to maximize profits).

But you do have to listen, and this is where everything becomes complicated. I thought the sound ineffective, the concert experience dulled. Others around me seemed pleased. That may have something to do with how you feel about movie theaters.

Norman Mailer once pointed out that film in a darkened cinema is, like reading, private, whereas live theater is public. The movies today are less live than ever, with their special effects, their digital projection and their amped-up sound.

Thankfully, the AMC didn’t turn the volume up to the ear-threatening levels that it prefers. But the dynamic range was not nearly as great as it is in a live concert in a great acoustic space. There was little sense of dimensionality. Instruments were not as individualized as they are in real life.

I surreptitiously checked a decibel meter app on my cellphone during this same program at Disney Thursday night and at Century City Sunday. The high readings were about the same, but those quick, loud peaks were instantaneous in Disney. With cinema sound, they lasted much longer. Perhaps that accounted for the sense of aural fatigue I felt after a while from the electronic amplification.


Many factors affect how one hears. With the musicians so big on the screen, they sound bigger. With the camera in constant motion, the ear tends to follow the eye. That proved effective when, at the beginning of “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” you could follow the musical line around the orchestra.

In Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony, which ended with a “Lamentation” sung by Kelley O’Connor, the mezzo-soprano was placed amid the orchestra. On screen, she was highlighted, as she was in the audio mix. That meant her Hebrew was more intelligible (there were subtitles in English) and her facial expressions were deeply moving. This wasn’t necessarily a better way to hear the symphony but an interesting alternate one.

Still, the camera angles and close-ups quickly became tiresome. Disney looked dark and dreary (natural light was not allowed in, as it normally is for matinees). Wind players are not flattered by close-ups blown up on a movie screen. A violist’s bow, shot from an odd angle, made it look like it was going to poke Dudamel in the eye, which served as curious distraction to the end of ‘Jeremiah.’

Nothing better sells a performance in Disney than when the timpani and basses vibrate your seat. For that, the only solution I can think of would be to revive “Percepto!” -- the buzzers that movie theaters installed to make seats tingle for the 1959 horror film “The Tingler.”

But many in Century City applauded the Beethoven. A knockout performance is apparently a knockout anywhere.



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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel starts off the L.A. Phil year with new beginnings

L.A. Phil to transmit performances to HD-equipped movie theaters

-- Mark Swed