Returning home can easily become cumbersome. Just ask Ulysses.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic seemed atypical to take any chances Saturday night with “Homecoming,” the first season-opening gala in two years. On paper, it looked as if an irrepressible orchestra that did not like to challenge expectations with its glittering, provocative, artistically ambitious, and occasionally silly galas had become cautiously moxie-free.
This time there were only a few movements from two classical music chestnuts. A pop star appeared with three songs, one of which was Leonard Bernstein’s evergreen “Somewhere”. An optimistic short new piece commissioned by a well-known composer opened the program. There were not even encores, and no silver or gold confetti fell sensationally from the ceiling at the end.
That’s right, no glittering confetti celebrating the significant occasion of LA Phil’s first concert back at the Walt Disney Concert Hall since March 8, 2019. “We counted the 470-something days, hours, seconds, and here we are,” Gustavo Dudamel exultantly told the audience. The orchestra’s music and artistic director also reckoned with something else: that music is the only thing that matters.
Hopefully and incomparably it was a great gala.
In retrospect, one could find signs that something was wrong with Dudamel and the orchestra when a couple of performances at the Hollywood Bowl this summer reached a level of revelation. Yet it hardly predicted a gala in which every apparent cliché consequently clicked.
The atmosphere was naturally energized by loyal audience tense back in its beloved concert hall. Dudamel was greeted like a pop star himself. The atmosphere was pure love party. Standing ovations added aerobics to the concert menu. At one point, Dudamel turned to the orchestra and said, “I love you with all my heart.” Eyes, this night, tore up more than once. It was perhaps the most moving evening in the hall since the Esa-Pekka Salon’s farewell concert as music director in 2009.
Mysteriously distant trumpets in Gabriela Ortiz’s magical “Kauyumari”, the first music heard, set the stage convincingly. One of Mexico’s most important composers and a favorite among Dudamel’s, Ortiz took his inspiration from the image of a blue deer (or Kauyumari) it is the guide for the Huichol people of Mexico when, after taking a peyote, they seek to heal their soul. Through a Huichol tune that brought a vibrant rhythmic life, Ortiz offered his own aural hallucinogenic.
With her kaleidoscopic eyes (and ears), this Gaby in the sky with diamonds made the thrilling melody a breathtaking sight, its repeated rhythms holding a listener steady, while the changing instrumental colors created the unpleasant effect of feeling uglued. The Huichol tune was always there, but one could never predict where or how it would end up in the orchestra. We thought we knew what was happening, but Ortiz kept reminding us not to do it, which was felt exactly by our own moment. I suppose (and hope) “Kauyumari” will join the orchestra hit parade.
You can not get much more common in classical than the opening of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Still, with the help of young Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, Dudamel somehow made it fresh. LA Phil musicians can no doubt play it in their sleep, but the almost forgotten reality of this orchestra in this hall (sorry, Apple, but your new spatial music does not come very close) became its own kind of Tchaikovskian peyote.
The horns heralded yet another sight. Cho, who encounters his recordings as a gentle performer whose crystal-cut formulations tell you almost nothing by itself, awakened to life with magnificent spark, the sound of bells ringing and approaching Horowitz. Cho made a perfect foil for Dudamel’s extravagant expressiveness. The orchestra just stopped with overwhelming Cho and framed its playing instead in rich glory. You will not find its similar trapped on Cho’s disks or downloads.
The same may be true of Cynthia Erivo, who came next. Her performance of “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story” at the Kennedy Center can be found on the National Symphony’s website. It is beautiful. With Dudamel and LA Phil, Erivo lost the beautiful after about 30 seconds and dug deep and then brilliantly deeper.
The place she sought – with powerful, low earthly tones and striking, earthy highs, her timbre changed to meet the expressive needs of every word, while her intonation remained remarkably true – was not out of reach, not out of all of us, but within for. It was a spectacular achievement. No one has any right to speak for Bernstein, but he was in space somewhere.
After two more Erivo songs, “Feeling Good” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” – impressive without counting on the “Somewhere” parade – Mahler entered the room. A dozen years ago, Dudamel conducted his first LA Phil gala as music director. He was 28, just like Mahler when he wrote his first symphony, which was on the program.
This became a famous concert, broadcast around the world, and it is available on commercial video. The extreme momentum that the young Dudamel brought to the last movement’s arresting 20 minutes of progress from panic crisis to euphoric cheers felt like prophecy. Then confetti rained.
This movement ended Saturday’s gala and ended it in a way that nothing could follow. The prophecy fulfilled came about two minutes faster, with less momentum and more exploration of mahleric details, about getting into everything. The symphony became more flourishing than a progression. The ending here turned into a monumental, what-did-not-kill-us-did-us-stronger statement, more sober than a pure adrenaline release of energy. It was a loud and solid and all-consuming climax that was not really a climax, but a reason to be.
LA Phil is without a doubt back – and back as the orchestra of the future that understands the need to look back. The gala was not a normal gala. The orchestra has a no-nonsense vaccination policy without exceptions. Masks, of course.
The titles of the three tracks Dudamel directs to his first regular season program, which begins Thursday, say pretty much it all: “Transfigured Night,” “Four Last Songs,” “Death and Transfiguration.” Confetti and encores can wait.