Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Tchaikovsky’s Shakespeare scores with contributions from Orlando Bloom and other actors
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An earlier version of this review has been replaced by the final version that appears in Saturday’s Calendar section.
I didn’t fully comprehend the magic of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Thursday night Tchaikovsky/Shakespeare extravaganza in Walt Disney Concert Hall until the next morning when I couldn’t get the surging love theme from Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” out of my mind. So powerfully convincing was Gustavo Dudamel’s performance that he made it somehow feel Shakespearean, even though it really isn’t.
“Romeo and Juliet” is not top drawer Tchaikovsky, and it has become a potboiler. His other symphonic fantasies on Shakespeare –- “Hamlet” and “The Tempest” –- contain poorer music and are seldom heard. Stringing all three similar pieces together is something no one outside of Russia -- with perhaps the exception of Dudamel, who is something of a Tchaikovsky fanatic -- would consider.
But the L.A. Philharmonic made the concert an occasion. Hollywood actors were invited to set the Shakespearean scene for each score. The most contagious was Orlando Bloom who, as Romeo, scampered over every elevated surface surrounding the stage.
The Tchaikovsky performances were out of this world. What the composer was able to do in these three pieces, each overly long (the range is 19 to 25 minutes), was create the roiling atmosphere so beloved of the depressive 19th century Russian sensibility, produce exciting orchestra effects and come up with ear-catching tunes. What Dudamel was able to do was find vibrancy in every bar. The whole package will be sent as live “theatercasts” to cinemas across the continent on Sunday, with the matinee repeat of the program serving as the second episode of L.A. Phil Live. And therein lies a dilemma in trying to please two different masters. The music is meant for the audience in the hall. The actors aimed themselves at the camera.
Kate Burton was the director, and she seemed eager for action and smothering, edgy emotion. But for the sake of the video, the L.A. Phil Live producers did not want loudspeakers mucking up the stage. The actors wore body mikes, and their massively disembodied voices were heard from tinny PA speakers in the ceiling designed for an announcer’s flatly modulated tones.
Much text ended up unintelligible. As conveyed by this treble-intense sound system, Matthew Rhys bemoaning Hamlet’s slings and arrows was more not-to-be than to-be. Malcolm McDowell stood in the organ loft as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Prospero from “The Tempest” and the Prince in the “Romeo and Juliet” excerpt. The speakers drained the liquid out of his delivery. Bloom’s ardent athleticism won him the day. His lithe Juliet, Anika Noni Rose, was nearly inaudible.
Bloom and Rose (nice touch, those flowery names) finished their scene lying in each other’s arms, as the lights went down and Tchaikovsky’s clarinets and bassoons, which begin his “Romeo and Juliet,” were made instead to serve as their furtive exit music. That clumsy bit of staging will no doubt be kept off screen in the theaters. I’d hoped they would remain in their embrace throughout the 22-minute piece.
But if stage images were camera ready, the video crew cared little about what the live audience saw. The detritus of ugly cameras disgracefully cluttered the graceful lines of Disney’s stage. A ladder, used as a prop, looked like something left behind by workmen. In physics, you can’t watch an electron without changing it. Similarly, you can’t film concerts without changing them. This isn’t a benign business.
What the L.A. Phil Live audiences in the movie theaters won’t get is the amazing orchestral sound that Dudamel was able to produce. This was the L.A. Phil utterly alive and kicking up a storm.
Dudamel treated the ravishing dark sonorities of “Hamlet” as the ravishments of the Dane’s distraught soul. Ophelia is portrayed by a folksy oboe solo, which Ariana Ghez played exquisitely. Tchaikovsky’s “Tempest” is lorded over by a big love theme, and Dudamel made it epic. Finally, there was the incredible surging of “Romeo and Juliet.” It shook the floor.
Go to movie theater Sunday for the actors and if there are enough close-ups of Dudamel, possible clues as to how he manages his magic. Go to the concert hall for the incomparable power of sound.
-- Mark Swed
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, $44-$167. Sunday’s performance will be simulcast at movie theaters. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.