Music review: Dudamel and Hancock in L.A. Phil Gershwin gala


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Gustavo Dudamel’s third season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic -– his most ambitious in terms of premieres and special projects and by far the most venturesome of any orchestra anywhere at the moment –- began Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall by seemingly playing it safe.

It was a Gershwin gala. But, then, very, very expensive tickets to a short concert and an expansive dinner in a “Rhapsody in Blue” tent needed to be sold. The black-tie benefit (to which the musicians donated their services) supported the orchestra’s education programs, and they matter.


The concert, as with Dudamel’s previous two season opening galas, was taped for future broadcast on PBS’ ‘Great Performances’ (New York’s WNET doing the production honors for our PBS-free city). KUSC was on hand to broadcast live, stream and archive at

It was a homegrown and homey affair. Pianist Herbie Hancock, who holds the L.A. Philharmonic creative chair for jazz, was the soloist. The orchestra was Gershwin’s hometown band when he died in 1937, and its history with the composer is equaled only by the New York Philharmonic. Dudamel, with his rhythmic flair, would seem a Gershwin natural. No one, obviously, needed to tell him how to convey the Latin spirit of Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture,” which began the program.

In fact, Gershwin remains ever so slightly outside of Dudamel’s comfort zone. A year ago he conducted “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue” (Gabriela Montero was soloist) at the Hollywood Bowl with plenty of gusto and care, but he never quite got the rhapsody of the “Rhapsody” nor the full Ravelian richness of the jazzy symphonic poem.

Dudamel even began his somewhat loopy remarks to the audience by joking about how hard he found Gershwin’s name to pronounce –- maybe he was serious about having a mojito backstage to get in the Cuban spirit. But Dudamel was not at a loss to find unique ways to make these pieces an exciting challenge to him and the players. Using a large orchestra in Gershwin can endanger the music’s jazziness. But Dudamel is seldom cautious. He went for a big sound that was both plush and raucous, while at the same time encouraging considerable freedom in all those sassy small solo passages that Gershwin characteristically throws in.

The result was often an intriguing mixed message. The “Cuban Overture” had brash outer sections and a seductively symphonic central one. The L.A. Philharmonic is noted for its flexibility, and the solo riffs were jazzy, authentic and unself-conscious, all of which is a real rarity in the symphonic world.

That was also true in “An American in Paris,” where one detail after another caught a listener’s attention. Dudamel seemed to have a particular fondness for the car horns in the percussion section, as if they were the motivation for his driving the piece hard.


Hancock introduced the ‘Rhapsody’ with two Gershwin solos –- “Embraceable You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” –- adding his own intriguingly thick harmonies. Both improvisations were slow, complex and introspective. Melodies, only occasionally recognizable, were filtered through cascading finger work and sounded like Gershwin heard through the harmonic haze.

Not surprisingly, Hancock had a distinctive approach to the ‘Rhapsody’ as well. He played on a Fazioli piano, which is not as forthright as the orchestra’s Steinways, but it suited his delicate dreaminess. He played the score as written. And not as written.

That is to say the notes were pretty much all there (Hancock’s classical technique is adequate but he labored through some of the flashier passages). But he didn’t so much play the “Rhapsody” as investigate it. He toyed with passages, trying things out one way, then another. Two similar measures were rarely approached similarly.

Only once or twice did Hancock actually contribute a little something of his own, and perhaps he would have been less reticent had he not been required to stick to the printed page and had the concerto not just kept barreling along as concertos do.

Dudamel followed Hancock respectfully. He encouraged individual players to make their own flourishes in response to the piano. He did not, however, hold back on the big orchestral effects, and again this made for Gershwin with a personality split between jazz and the grandly symphonic.

Gershwin’s way, when playing the ‘Rhapsody,’ was to dazzle by being offhand. Hancock and Dudamel went their own radically different ways, but they didn’t, perhaps, go far enough. Hancock seemed itching to improvise. If so, he should feel entitled. This is an orchestra, after all, that makes its own way.



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-- Mark Swed