Comment: Did we just have the best Hollywood Bowl season yet?

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened its Hollywood Bowl season on July 15, the mood was one of cautious optimism – a colorful cheer of denial. There was no requirement for vaccinations or masks. It was good to bring the kids – and a good thing too. That momentous night, Gustavo Dudamel directed a wonderful performance of “Peter and the Wolf”, with Viola Davis as the zesty narrator. Even so, people didn’t picnic exactly like it was in 2019. Delta was on; the wave had started.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, when Dudamel conducted an exceptional Mozart program for the final concert of the LA Phil’s Bowl season. Everyone had to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. Cautious optimism had turned to weariness, what, I’m worried? consent.

Through it all, it turned out to be the most satisfying Bowl season in a long time. But it takes more to guess if we’re likely to come back better. Will it be a case of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Or will we, in trying to improve the world, only make it worse?

The most relevant maxim at the moment, however, is that absence makes the heart more loving. All that publicity about sharing music with the masses, democracy in action, in the magical light of the stars and blah, blah, blah of the Bowl evaporated when the place was treated as little more than Instagram picnic grounds.

Yet this summer, when the lights went out, collective attention shifted to the stage to a degree of focus I had never seen before at the Bowl. It was as if lightning struck and awakened everyone to the fact that music was what we had been missing. The picnics had not gone away, the live music was gone. And best of all, the music was made by an LA Phil who wouldn’t take any notes for granted over the summer.

With the need for late planning and travel uncertainty, not to mention a projected loss of nearly $ 100 million in revenue from the pandemic, the LA Phil has stayed close to home. Dudamel walked over to the Bowl plate and committed to five weeks. Six of the seven guest chefs were former Dudamel Fellows, with five of them making their Bowl debuts with enthusiasm. The remaining guest conductor was also family: Thomas Wilkins, the musical director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, wore his classic tight-fitting hat in an enlightening program that revolved around African-American composers.

Tianyi Lu conducts the LA Philharmonic on its Hollywood Bowl debut on July 20.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Even though the mood was changed, nothing was a big deal overnight. For example, every summer in recent times has brought incremental improvements to the amplification system. This summer it has proven to be surprisingly engaging, dominating the senses, not letting any detail escape the night air.

The not-so-secret ingredient was Dudamel. It was love in the beginning when he made his US debut in the Cahuenga Pass with the LA Phil in 2005; now it is his personal playground. He jumps at the chance to work with pop and jazz artists (this summer including Christina Aguilera, HER and Carlos Vives) as well as bring a parade of fresh ideas to the symphonic lineup.

Grizzled and at 40 years old well spent his “Dude” days, Dudamel has become a masterful musical director, although still young and exuberant, who takes everything he conducts with great seriousness and great joy. He used his influence to secure a respectable amount of rehearsal time (hardly a Bowl tradition), and he conducted outstanding performances by concert hall standards from Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”. Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony, Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”, Falla’s “Tricorn” and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. On Tuesday, he ended the season with an imposing and incisive performance of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 which, if released as a recording, would rival the best of the hundreds.

Despite Dudamel’s early career, a typical Bowl debut is so loaded that the promise is more exhilarating than perfection. Never mind that Enluis Montes Olivar fought the most. He has shown potential in the past and has been invited again as a Dudamel member. But any conductor who can immediately electrify the crowd and the orchestra clearly has to have something. Tianyi Lu’s Technicolor “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Marta Gardolinska’s Beethoven Seventh poll made the names of these two young women worth remembering.

Marta Gardolinska conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic on its Hollywood Bowl debut.

Marta Gardolinska conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic on its Hollywood Bowl debut on September 9.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Yes, Dudamel’s new talent and better-than-ever leadership went beyond what top infectious disease specialists could have ordered for a re-launched post-pandemic bowl. What better way to top it off than with Dudamel at the helm of an all-Mozart program?

Unexpectedly, this program was also a warning signal.

This time, with the amphitheater almost full, the picnic around me didn’t stop once the concert started, despite Dudamel’s unusual spirit in his lively interpretation of Mozart’s First Symphony No. 25. The bottles of wine have fallen. The masks that had been taken out to eat and drink remained off. Distracting phones created a lot of unwanted points of light.

It was still a great concert. The centerpiece, Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante, featured the orchestra’s first violin, Martin Chalifour, and principal violist, Teng Li, as fascinating and dissimilar soloists. His calm and collected habit, Chalifour added Mozartian decorations with impeccable elegance. Li was almost the opposite with his full bodied sound and very expressive style. Gratifyingly, the soloists turned this into an exceptionally rich dialogue while finding so much common ground in the cadence of the first movement that some in the audience erupted into spontaneous applause.

So the crowd (or enough of the crowd) listened, cared. The cheers after each job got louder and more exuberant.

I’m not sure, however, that it’s good enough. In his music, Mozart manifested a world of “crowned new hope”, and that might have been the motto of the Bowl this summer (if Peter Sellars hadn’t already used it once for a Mozart festival in Vienna). Should he fall, like he did on Tuesday, look different?

This will not be the case if we adopt a Mozartian pleasure principle which is substantial and not superficial. The divinely sensual slow movement of the Sinfonia Concertante is one of the great pleasures of music, but it can only be savored, as the pandemic has surely taught us, only by paying attention. Decadence and decay are the alternative, which perhaps explains why Peter Greenaway used this Andante to mark the happy and occasional drownings in his movie “Drowning by Numbers”. Haven’t we already had too many?


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Corina C. Butler

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