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Dudamel, LA Phil Teams With Rodrigo y Gabriela in Latin-American Fest

August 21, 2018

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Along with his other musical assets, Gustavo Dudamel excels the most in music of Latin America. While he has made several good recordings over the last decade-plus, the one great album in his discography so far is Fiesta, his sole CD-length dip into the music of the region with the Simón Bolivar Youth (now Symphony) Orchestra in peak energetic form. There is no one on the scene currently who can make a conventional symphony orchestra move to a Latin groove with as much zest as Dudamel.

Indeed, there should have been more of this kind of thing at the Hollywood Bowl, on Friday night Aug. 17 where Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic mostly functioned as a backup to the Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. The first part of the concert consisted of about 20 minutes of short, Latin American symphonic pieces. After intermission, there came 40 minutes of the Phil backing Rodrigo y Gabriela, and finally another 40 minutes of the duo all on its own.

The musical partnership of Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero began in Mexico, but they didn’t really catch on until they moved to Dublin in 1999, where busking in the streets helped them develop a following and ultimately led to hit albums and film-music gigs. A nutshell description of their music could be Paco de Lucía meets the Gipsy Kings — nuevo flamenco, mostly. But there are other elements in play: I can hear James Brown’s J.B.s [band] in some of their insistent rhythm guitar licks, Gabor Szabo in Rodrigo’s tone quality and choice of notes, and a giddy energy in Gabriela’s playing that a heavy metal audience would call “shredding.” Their new single “Cumbé,” released on the day of the concert, was catchy, and Rodrigo utilized an unusual (for him) popping sound via an effects box.

The duo makes an immediate impact when they launch into a frenetic groove for the first time — and at first, they carry you along with them. But after a short while, it became apparent that there is not much more that they have to say — they are a one-trick pony, if you will. The only change of pace was a leisurely jam that was stretched out to interminable length near the end of their duo set.

And what did Gustavo and the Phil have to add to this? Whole notes — or as bored studio musicians like to say, “footballs” — and mimicking Rodrigo y Gabriela lead lines, often barely audible underneath R-y-G’s amped-up guitars. Really, it wasn’t necessary to have an orchestra there at all, and the duo’s subsequent, self-sufficient, unaccompanied set proved it.

Better, then, to savor the morsels of Latin American symphonic vigor that were offered up front. There was an Arturo Márquez chart of Amador “Dimas” Pérez’s “Nereidas de Dimas” that was by turns big, galumphing, lush, and sexy. Rather than play Paul Desenne’s El Caimán (lack of rehearsal time?), Dudamel replaced it with a zesty reprise of “Xilófono” (from Julian Orbón’s Tres Versiones Sinfónicas) which he had already performed twice at the Bowl earlier in the week.

Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion was soulfully and not too sentimentally done. José Pablo Moncayo’s jumping Huapango — which Dudamel considers to be a “second Mexican national anthem” — was the most substantial miniature of the lot, and while this rendition could not quite find a consistent groove, the rhythmic edges were sharp and Dudamel managed to expose a lot of welcome detail.

The Bowl looked nearly full — which must have been music to the eyes and ears of the staff of America’s most prosperous orchestra.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.