Christoph Waltz narrates as Gustavo Dudamel conducts selections from Egmont. (Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)
It was in 2007 when I read the news that the Los Angeles Philharmonic had just named a new conductor to take over from the departing Esa-Pekka Salonen, a young guy named Gustavo Dudamel who hailed from Venezuela. As a Latino, I felt very proud and quickly called LA Phil to inquire when he would begin performing in Los Angeles. At the time they informed me that the baton would be passed (pun intended) in 2009, but he was going to be in town soon with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela for a series of concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall and also several free shows for the community. I asked if he would take part in any of these free performances and was told that most likely it would be the one on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at the Luckman Theater at Cal State Los Angeles, featuring their 60-member strong all-brass ensemble.
As part of Latin culture, you are encouraged to bring something to eat when you are invited to someone’s festivities, so in this case I headed out to Porto’s Cuban bakery in Glendale, bought six dozen of their famous guava pastries and delicious cream cheese rolls and brought them to the Luckman for Dudamel and the kids. As a personal welcoming gift I purchased a small coffee table photo book of pre-Castro Cuba, the country that I was born in, which I dedicated to and delivered personally to Dudamel that evening.
Fast forward eight years, and there I was on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015 experiencing another memorable evening with Maestro Dudamel and members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (now renamed the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela) joined this time by members of the LA Phil. Titled Immortal Beethoven: Opening Night Concert & Gala: The Brilliance of Beethoven, the evening began on the red carpet with a trove of celebrities and dignitaries including actors Julie Andrews, Hilary Swank, Christoph Waltz, William Shatner, Gael García Bernal and Mía Maestro in addition to director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mayor Eric Garcetti and former L.A. County Board of Supervisors member Zev Yaroslavsky.
Considered one of the greatest composers of all time, German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a pivotal figure in western music during the transition from the Classical to the Romantic periods. He is also well known for losing his hearing in his late 20s, but yet composed some of his most important works after this terrible situation. His nine symphonies are the focus of the LA Phil this season.
The “brilliant” all-Beethoven evening began with selections from Egmont, Opus 84, which was written between 1809 and 1810 as a score for a 1787 play of the same name written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It consisted of an Overture: Sostenuto, ma non troppo – Allegro, followed by six of the nine accompanying pieces: Lied: “Die Trommel gerühret,” Entracte: Andante, Lied: “Freudvoll und Leidvoll,” Mort de Klärchen, Melodram: “Süsser Schlaf, du kommst wie ein reines gluck“ and ending with Siegessymphonie (Symphony of Victory): Allegro con brio. A unique addition to this presentation was the inclusion of a male narrator (Christoph Waltz) that was not part of the original play and does not appear in any of the complete recording of this work.
This “incidental music” (score) deals with the life and heroic deeds of a 16th-century Dutch nobleman, the Count of Egmont, who was sentenced to death for having stood up to oppression. The makeup of the large orchestra was heavy on the string section, which gave these pieces sometimes a soft, delicate sound or would build up to a gorgeous wall of complex layers of harmonies that would surround the audience at sometime lighting speed.
In the role of Claire, the young soprano Rachele Gilmore brought passion and innocence to the role with a lovely, clear voice especially on her second number. The LA Phil/Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela combination proved to be explosive in this piece, as the younger players blended with the seasoned musicians to execute a complicated, melodramatic score that culminated in the Symphony of Victory which is similar in style to Beethoven’s more famous Fifth Symphony, which was completed two years earlier.
Second on the program were selections from Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43, a ballet score commissioned by choreographer Salvatore Viganò (who also wrote the libretto) in 1800 and became Beethoven’s first major work for the stage. Based loosely on the Titan Greek myth, it included: Overture, Act 2: Maestoso – Andante, Adagio – Andante Quasi Allegretto and the last of the 16 original numbers, Finale.
For this occasion, Maestro Dudamel and the LA Phil sought out one of the most exciting, young ballet companies in Los Angeles, Barak Ballet, headed by former New York City Ballet dancer Melissa Barak. Her difficult task was how to choreograph these four pieces in a long, narrow segment in front of the orchestra with multiple dancers and still convey movement and expression.
As explained by Barak it was a request by Dudamel to have a female ballet soloist for the Overture and an ensemble of dancers for the other three segments. The lovely and striking Beckanne Sisk, a guest artist with Barak Ballet, brought beautiful lines to her solo number that were accentuated by her impeccable arm movements and her mile-long legs. The ensemble made up of dancers Jessica Gadzinski, Hannah Wilcox, Mauro Villanueva, Evan Swenson and Ryan Camou pulled off some complex dance patterns by Barak while keeping things fluid in a catwalk-like segment of space where they had to perform. Specifically outstanding was Villanueva, who executed some very difficult turns and jumps in that limited space. Maestro Dudamel had his own difficult task of conducting the orchestra while having his back to the dancers, but it all worked out beautifully to Beethoven’s light and tuneful score.
Prior to executing the last piece of the evening, Dudamel addressed the audience in his rapid Spanish-accented English as he introduced the make up of the orchestra as a mix of both of his musical families, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
Ending the evening with a big bang was the 4th Movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125 (“Ode to Joy”), which is considered to be his greatest work and one of western music’s crown jewels. Completed in 1824, this monumental work includes choral segments that on Tuesday night were in the capable hands of the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the direction of Maestro Grant Gershon with guest soloists: Mariana Ortiz (soprano), J’nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Guerrero (tenor) and Soloman Howard (bass).
This last movement of the 9th Symphony began with some beautiful work led by the cellos, with the rest of the orchestra following as they added layers of sounds, hinting at the iconic melody found in the choral finale. The Los Angeles Master Chorale filled up all the rear bench/choir seats high above the orchestra, providing an avalanche of voices while the soloists were relegated to the right, rear corner of the stage, which did not allow their voices be presented to their optimum, an unfortunate staging decision.
Nonetheless Howard’s towering bass voice (He is also very tall.) projected well over the orchestra, while tenor Guerrero’s strong vocal range and high notes made the audience take notice. Soprano Ortiz, dressed in an elegant black dress, added some lovely vocal colors to the piece, and mezzo-soprano Bridges, dressed in a glamorous contrasting red dress and lipstick, rounded out the talented quartet.
Rewarded by several minutes of a joyous, standing ovation and multiple curtain calls, these two musical families, the LA Phil and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, under the baton of the Dude of classical music made an obvious case for the essence of Beethoven’s 9th, which is the idea of universal brotherhood.