Review: The orchestra indeed dances at L.A. Philharmonic gala

The program was titled “The Philharmonic Dances.” The orchestra didn’t, real dancers did. But Gustavo Dudamel was once more the star of the opening night gala of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The luster hasn’t worn off as the now 31-year-old music director enters his fourth season with the orchestra. He still receives a sky-high approval rating from his upbeat audience, which on Thursday night appeared more than happy to be filling the orchestra’s coffers for the annual high-priced, black-tie concert, with a socialite supper and dancing afterward in an ornate tent constructed on Grand Avenue.

Los Angeles, in case no one has mentioned it lately, isn’t like the rest of America.


Not that other orchestras don’t have their galas — the New York Philharmonic had one on Thursday as well. But across parts of the country the new season hasn’t gotten off to such a hot start. There have been strikes in Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Minnesota (the management of the last is now threatening to lock out the musicians). Players in some places are seeing their salaries slashed by as much as one-third and benefits similarly diminished. Lacking optimism in the economy, arts donors have become tighter with their checkbooks.


Money matters, but imagination matters more. Unlike the typically clichéd orchestra gala, at which a superstar and music director are expected to play it safe and aim for the lowest common donor denominator, the L.A Phil’s galas take chances — sometimes with repertory (Dudamel’s first opened with the world premiere of John Adams’ demanding “City Noir”), sometimes with format. Every year it’s something different.

For this night a stage was set behind the orchestra. The L.A. Phil commissioned new choreography for Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” and for one of the three dance episodes from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.” American Ballet Theatre stars Veronika Part and Roberto Bolle were engaged to bring another dimension to familiar selections from Stravinsky, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky.

The most elaborate offering was Barak Marshall’s new choreography for “The Chairman Dances,” which featured the L.A. company BodyTraffic. Written by Adams (the L.A. Phil’s creative chair) in 1986 as a surreal alternate ending to his opera “Nixon in China,” this short, sexy fox trot for orchestra functions as a kind of operatic outtake.

Madame Mao gate-crashes the presidential banquet, strips to a skin-tight cheongsam and seductively entices Mao to step out of his portrait and dance with her. Attempting something grander, Marshall featured five couples who mimicked every musical twist and turn with jagged movements. A red flag was waved. A couple married in a kind of postmodern Red Army ballet.


Adams’ score is best served with less, but the execution was excellent. So was the performance, in which Dudamel found marvelous detail and the L.A Phil played with glowing, unforced brilliance.

It is never easy to make ballet work on an orchestral program, and Part and Bolle were fish out of water. Neither dancer has a strong enough personality to dominate a bare stage already dominated by the L.A. Phil and its conductor with a huge personality.

Bolle was more herculean than lithe in a variation from Stravinsky’s “Apollo,” and Part proved a museum-like dying swan.

With the orchestra alone, Dudamel brought fresh opulence to three “Swan Lake” excerpts. But when Part and Bolle returned for the pas de deux from Act 3, they looked like they were going through motions they had gone through a hundred times before, and demanded the same from the orchestra.

The short program ended with the “On the Town” dances. In the first two, again performed by the orchestra alone, Dudamel took a huge symphonic approach (which Bernstein did too in his later years), and “Lonely Town” turned near Mahlerian. Josh Rhodes made entertaining new choreography for “Times Square: 1944" with four back-flipping sailors who ran through the audience and onto the stage, asking Dudamel for directions.

The encore was the ending of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” played very, very big and thrilling. There was, however, no confetti, which is Disney tradition at galas (I guess everyone is watching pennies).

Ultimately, the evening was more successful as music than as dance (not exactly a sin for an orchestra). But even so, Dudamel and the L.A. Phil know how to put on show, which is rare in the orchestra gala business.


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