Review: Dudamel’s bittersweet L.A. Phil gala delivers star power and most moving moments

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl for the online benefit "Icons on Inspiration."
Gustavo Dudamel conducts a socially distanced Los Angeles Philharmonic in an otherwise empty Hollywood Bowl as part of the online benefit “Icons on Inspiration.”
(Los Angeles Philharmonic)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is the orchestra that knows how to party. Its inimitable galas open each season with an audacious mishmash of reverence and irreverence, flash and substance, populism and glamour.

Obviously, “Icons on Inspiration,” the L.A. Phil online benefit that begins a monthlong stream Saturday, can’t be that kind of gala. There has been no 2020-21 season. Walt Disney Concert Hall has been deserted for nearly a year. The Hollywood Bowl remained an empty shell last summer, with the exception of filmed L.A. Phil performances held under L.A. County’s stringent coronavirus restrictions and without an audience. Now it is February, as if that matters, each month ticking by in placid Southern California weather, differing mainly in peaks and valleys of COVID-19 surges.

But “Icons” does redefine what an online fundraiser can be, as Gustavo Dudamel interacts with the likes of rapper Common, pop star Katy Perry, Latin Grammy-winning Carlos Vives, actress Natalie Portman, pianist Yuja Wang and actual icon Julie Andrews.


For a benefit that is not a gala to matter in these times, as this one does, first it must be bittersweet. An audience-free Bowl, where this was lovingly filmed by codirectors Alberto Arvelo and Camila Martins, is bittersweet. The orchestra, its number of players reduced in size, distanced on the stage and mostly masked, is bittersweet. Lest they spew aerosols, the brass and the winds play encaged by plastic dividers, as though defendants in a Kafkaesque courtroom; that is ever so bittersweet.

Second, there must be a point of view. In her conversation with Dudamel, Portman exclaims that it is crazy not to consider artists essential workers. Government should support artists. “It is not worth having a country,” she insists, “without culture.”

Dudamel then conducts the lullaby from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” There is a magic in the performance like no other. More so than in any dance performance I have seen, the captured firebird of the ballet is here freed by the music. What was empty feels filled. Distanced players communicate as though elbow to elbow. Plastics seem to vanish with an environmentally friendly flourish into thin air.

As a concept, “Icons on Inspiration” sounds as formulaic as a theme for a Super Bowl halftime show or a Rose Parade. Yet, the gentle world-weariness of Stravinsky’s lullaby really does connect with an icon and an inspiration. Eighty years earlier, 40 years before Dudamel was born, Stravinsky made his L.A. Phil debut at the Hollywood Bowl conducting his “Firebird” in a staged and choreographed performance. Stravinsky was a new refugee from the war in Europe and beginning a new life in L.A. While there is no mention of any of that, nor need to, a hope-filled sense of imperishable tradition nevertheless hovers over this performance.

The format of the program is a short Dudamel discussion with a guest about a short piece that Dudamel then conducts. Diversity is a theme, as it has been for as long as Dudamel has been music director. The program, in fact, begins exactly where the orchestra left off on March 8, in the middle of its Power to the People! festival. That Sunday matinee at Disney, with the pandemic moving in, was the L.A. Phil’s last public concert and included Jessie Montgomery’s arresting and race-conscious “Banner” and Dudamel’s swingingly seductive performance of Duke Ellington’s suite, “Three Black Kings.”

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Dudamel opens once more with Montgomery, this time with her splashy “Starburst,” and he follows it with the “Martin Luther King” movement from “Three Black Kings.” As an introduction, Common tells Dudamel that for him, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Ellington’s wondrous evocation of it, “is the mountain top.”


Perry’s piece is the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. It is the first work she heard Dudamel conduct four years ago at a Buenos Aires concert, which she says made her a fan of classical music. Wang’s is a snazzy solo piano arrangement of Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2 that is a knockout. Once word of this gets around, she will be asked to play it so often, she may come to regret its success.

Dudamel goes nowhere these days without Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. If the rumors prove true that any day now he will be named music director of Paris Opera (a post he would presumably add on top of his L.A. Phil responsibilities), he will no doubt find a reason to bring rising stars from YOLA to the French capital. For the benefit, YOLA members join the L.A Phil in Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Romero’s “Fuga con Pajarillo.”

After chatting with Vives and three members of YOLA, Dudamel joins Andrews on a video call. She asks him a question about the sound of music. What does it feel like to conduct Mahler?

Dudamel can’t put it in words. His answer, instead, becomes the last movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a song in which heaven is represented as a place for exalting the simple pleasures of life and, most of all, music. Soprano Liv Redpath is the angelic soloist. Once more there is magic. Aerial shots of the Bowl and of surrounding L.A. make the orchestra look like an oasis.

The L.A. Phil’s bittersweet benefit must compete with regular broadcasts of full orchestras performing in Germany and elsewhere, where there are fewer pandemic restrictions than here and more pretense of normality. In comparison, we appear dysfunctional when it comes to coping. Here, Mahler, though, offers the promise of sweetness to our bitter bareness.

It’s only a glimpse of promise, of course. Yet for Dudamel that’s the best pitch imaginable for supporting not just the L.A. Phil but music and, beyond that, as Portman tells us, the culture that a country can’t be without.


'Icons on Inspiration'

When: Premieres at 6 p.m. Saturday and streams until 7 p.m. March 8

Cost: Free; donations accepted