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Primed for perfection but never reached

Special to The Times

It started out like the magical evening everyone had been anticipating since the announcement that Joao Gilberto would make his first appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in more than three decades. More than 13,000 listeners were primed and ready Wednesday for an extremely rare opportunity to experience the music of the Brazilian singer-guitarist whose voice and guitar combined with the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim in the late ‘50s to create the enormously influential music known as bossa nova.

But the program ended up as yet another installment in the long list of eccentric episodes associated with an artist almost as well known for his unpredictability as for the quality of his music.

Ironically, the problems concerned the sound of silence, the quality most crucial to Gilberto’s music. His softly purring vocals and transparently understated guitar playing have always had their greatest impact when they come to life through a haze of utter quiet.

But the quiet Gilberto experienced Wednesday was not the sort of silence that enhances his playing. It was the quiet of technology, of microphone glitches that triggered stoppage after stoppage, as Gilberto appealed to both the audio technicians and the audience in Portuguese and English for sound reproduction that would satisfy his stringently demanding requirements.

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His set had started in reasonable fashion, although with a hint of the difficulties to come. Calmly strolling onstage carrying his guitar, Gilberto nodded to the audience and sat down at center stage. Facing a small thicket of microphones, embraced on both sides by plastic baffles, he touched a few strings, then began to adjust one of the microphone booms. A technician rushed out, helped with the placement and everything seemed primed to begin.

For the first 15 or 20 minutes, Gilberto’s performance met every expectation. Singing a mixture of familiar and lesser-known numbers, he reached out in a mesmerizing aural embrace. The audience, a bit restless during the opening moments, settled into utter stillness, transforming the giant venue into an intimate living room.

Even during this segment, however, it was apparent that Gilberto’s sheer talent was compensating for imbalances in the sound. The guitar was understated to the point of inaudibility, and lacking in the resonant, woody qualities of an acoustic instrument. His vocals gradually diminished in volume until his whispery style became just that -- whispers.

Shouted objections arose from the upper-level seats, and Gilberto was visited once again by the audio folks. That was the pattern that continued throughout the set.

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To call the experience disappointing is to soften the blow. Gilberto’s opening numbers offered the promise of an exquisite evening in the company of one of the 20th century’s great musical artists, making the subsequent letdown all the more distressing.

As it turned out, Gilberto had played a leading role in creating the drama. According to Patricia Mitchell, the Philharmonic’s chief operating officer, “He declined to come to the sound check, which is actually specified, not just in his but in every artist’s contract.... When the performance started, obviously the artist was displeased, and we made several changes of mikes in the course of the performance, trying to get something that would please the artist and work better for the audience.

“At the end of the day, he did do a complete set, although he obviously was displeased. And we regret any inconvenience to the artist and the audience.”

Gilberto’s representatives in Brazil could not be reached for comment, but the concert’s promoter, Darlene Chan of Festival Productions, said, “Joao felt very bad when he walked offstage, for himself and for the audience. Even though his representative agreed that we could use microphones that were appropriate for the Bowl rather than his usual studio microphones, once Joao got on stage, he just didn’t like what he heard.”

Gilberto exacerbated the situation by repeatedly threatening to leave, calling up memories of a 1999 program in Brazil where similar problems arose. When that audience, less inhibited than the Bowl listeners, objected vociferously, Gilberto reportedly stuck out his tongue and walked off stage.

That’s not what happened at the Bowl, but the streams of disappointed fans, pouring out of the venue as the contretemps continued, testified to their understandable disappointment that such an eagerly anticipated event had turned out so badly.

Hopefully, the negativity will not overcome anyone’s recollection of the opening performance by singer Luciana Souza and guitarist Romero Lubambo. In their rendering of classic bossa novas and Souza’s fast-paced, Brazilian-style scat singing, they provided the musical perfection that was so anticipated, and ultimately so elusive, in the uneven offering by Gilberto.


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