That’s how much time separated Gustavo Dudamel’s last performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Saturday’s gala homecoming concert. There had been months in between of shutdown, the gradual introduction of performance captures for online streaming performed under strict COVID-19 restrictions with no audiences in attendance, and eventually the return to live performances with live audiences at the Hollywood Bowl. But as a decidedly emotional Dudamel said as he took the stage and looked out, “This [Disney Hall] is our home.”
With the exception of mandatory vaccination verification and full masking required in the hall, this was a gala much like those that have come before — glittery, loud, and not too long, freely mixing styles and soloists, both classical and pop.
The piece that opened the program was, however, quite special and emotionally appropriate to the mood of the moment — the long-delayed world premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s Kauyumari. In her program notes Ortiz says, “Among the Huichol people of Mexico, Kauyumari means “The Blue Deer.” The Blue Deer represents a spiritual guide, one that is transformed through an extended pilgrimage. I immediately thought of The Blue Deer and its power to enter the realm of the intangible as akin to the celebration of the reopening of live music.”
Imbued with the musical flavors of her native Mexico, Kauyumari depicts a journey, over the course of a brief six minutes, from the shadowy rumblings of a bass drum and gong, to shafts of radiant light peeling forth in the brass, much the same way they do in Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Ultimately, the spirit of a Mexican folk dance makes its entrance as a solo piccolo, then grows into a rhythmically interweaving, pulsating explosion of hope and renewal.
“It has been a while, but we are back!” Dudamel exclaimed, barely able to hold back the tears. “But you know, life’s interruptions can offer a chance for new beginnings.”
The program then settled into a candy-sampler of diverse offerings beginning with piano soloist, Seong-Jin Cho (winner of 2015 Chopin International Competition) performing the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor. His hard-hitting virtuosity wowed the crowd.
The stage was then given over to Grammy, Emmy, and Tony-Award winning vocalist Cynthia Erivo, elegant atop a gown that resembled a shimmering pink rose. After the thunderous forte attacks of the Tchaikovsky, her gentle, crystal-clear rendition of “Somewhere” (from West Side Story) cast a much-needed spell of melodic serenity. This was music that meant a lot to Dudamel and the orchestra, which recently completed recording the soundtrack for Steven Spielberg’s new film treatment of the musical. The score was mostly performed by Dudamel with the NY Phil, but when the COVID shutdown came, the recording was completed by Dudamel with the LA Phil. Long-awaited, the film is due to be released in December.
From the serene yearning of Leonard Bernstein’s melody, Erivo upped the temp with energized, jazzy, Broadway-style renditions of Michael Bublé’s, “You Know How I Feel” and a Barbra-worthy turn of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
To end the concert, Dudamel cranked the volume up to 11 for a performance of the titanic final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Perhaps, after so many months away from Disney Hall, he’d forgotten how bright the acoustics of the hall are. Nevertheless, the audience loved it. As for Dudamel and the orchestra, they have the rest of the “real season” to work it all out.