Live Music: Josh Groban and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the “July Fourth Fireworks Spectacular”

By Don Heckman

Josh Groban was the headliner, but the fireworks stole the show Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

Not surprising, since the L.A. Philharmonic’s annual celebration of the 4th of July is one of the Southland’s summer highlights.  And once again the evening reached its climactic ending with a blend of spectacular pyrotechnics and patriotic march music, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted with lithe enthusiasm by Sarah Hicks.

I’ve been attending the July 4th Fireworks Spectaculars at the Bowl for more than two decades, and they just seem to get better and better.  The pyrotechnics are at their best – as they were this year — when the music and fireworks are completely in sync.  And Souza Pyrotechnics, directed by Eric S. Elias, caught every explosive accent, every dynamic climax in the Philharmonic’s closing medley of “The Washington Post,” “Semper Fidelis” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

In the opening half, Hicks and the Philharmonic offered an appropriately patriotic selection of works, reaching from Copland’s Rodeo (“Buckaroo Holiday” segment) to John Williams’ “Summon the Heroes,” a Carmen Dragon arrangement of “America the Beautiful” and an all-join-in-the-whistling version of “Colonel Bogey March.”  Hicks and the Philharmonic then closed that portion of the program with a medley of the songs associated with different areas of the U.S. Armed forces (“Anchors Aweigh,” the “Caisson Song,” “The Marines’ Hymn,” etc.).  And, saluting the members of the audience who served in the Armed forces, she asked the veterans of each of the different Armed Forces to stand when their song was played.  The result was an effective celebration of the real meaning behind the 4th of July.

Groban’s second half performance, in which he was aided on several tunes by the scintillating trumpet work of Arturo Sandoval, was a characteristically amiable interaction with the musicians and his audience .  Often stalking the stage as he sang, he worked his way through an eclectic set of songs ranging from pop and rock material to classical excerpts and songs associated with his far-reaching career.

There’s no denying his effectiveness as a performer.  Conversational between songs, often humorous, he also moved to the piano on a few songs, and demonstrated surprising skills as a drummer on other material.  Add to that warmth of his baritone voice and the musicality that is at the core of his music.

But Groban did not serve the totality of his music when he frequently seemed determined to exhibit the beauty of his voice by holding every vowel tone as long as possible, while enhancing it with a constantly quavering vibrato.  The result – especially in thoughtful songs such as Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” and Don McLean’s “Vincent” – was a diminishing of Groban’s musical story-telling.  And, given his innate abilities, one couldn’t help but wish for a richer, more expressive performance from this talented young artist.

The Fireworks Spectacular with Josh Groban continues tonight, on the 4th of July, at the Hollywood Bowl.

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