By Don Heckman
The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director Gustavo Dudamel opened the new season at Walt Disney Hall Thursday night with a smartly conceived and beautifully performed program titled The Philharmonic Dances. Opening nights at Disney have become stellar events over the past few years – musically and socially. And this one was no exception.
There was the usual fund raising gala, of course, an important destination for L.A.’s social and entertainment elite, with plenty of familiar (and not so familiar, depending upon one’s orientation) celebrities strolling across a red carpet strategically positioned at the Grand Ave. entrance for convenient media access.
But the most intriguing aspect of the night was what took place on the Disney stage. From the audience perspective, it was a rarely seen Disney Hall vista. The orchestra was spread out in all its instrumental glory, the players occupying all the far-reaching space that had been designed, specifically, for them. The broad riser behind them, however, showcased several selections by dancers. Their presence, closely viewable from every seat, high or low, made for a remarkable music and dance tableau.
The opening work – The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra)– was a gripping, musical visualization by composer John Adams — inspired by his opera, Nixon in China—in which he imagines Chairman Mao dancing with his mistress, Chiang Ch’ing. Newly commissioned (by the L.A. Philharmonic) choreography by Barak Marshall, rigorously executed by the ten dancers of BODYTRAFFIC, had an appropriately collective quality.
Selections by Stravinsky (Variation d’Apollon) and Saint-Saens (The Dying Swan) followed, the former danced by soloist Roberto Bolle, the latter by Veronika Part. Both dancers then joined together for selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Whether dancing as soloists or together, Bolle and Part were exquisite interpreters as well as masters of their craft, especially in the Swan Lake Pas de deux, with choreography modeled on the classic interpretation by Marius Petipa.. The Philharmonic, guided by Gustavo Dudamel, provided a setting as intimate as it was embracing.
The climactic selection from Leonard Bernstein – “Three Dance Episodes” from On the Town – started as a tour de force for Dudamel and the Philharmonic, shimmering with urban rhythms and an undercurrent of jazz accents. Josh Rhodes’ choreography (commissioned by the L.A, Phil.) featured four dancers – Sam Cahn, Marty Lawson, Andy Millis and Christopher Vo – garbed in sailor’s outfits. Their high energy, often acrobatic routines clearly recalled the similar sailors’ dancing from the original On the Town production.
An impressive evening of music and dance. Most of the headlines and photos emphasize the celebrity presence at the opening night gala. But the real pleasures of the evening traced to the utterly superb, creatively empathic efforts of Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a stageful of gifted dancers (along with a little help from Adams, Stravinsky, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky and Bernstein).
All of which bodes well for the 2012-13 season at Disney Hall.
Gustavo Dudamel photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.