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LA Phil’s Timely Resurrection of Its “Power to the People!” Festival

October 19, 2020

Los Angeles Philharmonic

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s multistyled “Power to the People!” festival looked like a gutsy move way back in March. After all, that was the signature slogan of Oakland’s Black Panther Party circa 1966, as well as the title of one of John Lennon’s more inflammatory hit singles five years later. Granted, it wasn’t as much of a gamble in sapphire-blue California as it would have been for, say, the symphony orchestras of Nebraska or Utah, but one wonders what conservative-minded subscribers thought of it.

Then some startling things happened. The COVID-19 pandemic shut the festival down in mid-paragraph on Mar. 12 — along with the rest of concert life. George Floyd was casually murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis on May 25, an outrage that set off mass urban uprisings and demonstrations at a level that the U.S. hasn’t seen since the 1960s and gave added life to the more-recent Black Lives Matter movement. In retrospect, obviously, March’s “Power to the People!” festival now seems prophetic — and seeking to recover some of what had been lost, the LA Phil added an epilogue as the third and fourth installments of its filmed SOUND/STAGE miniseries.

Recapping SOUND/STAGE briefly, it launched with a rather subdued opening episode, “Love in the Time of COVID,” then revved up the engines somewhat with “Salón Los Angeles.” Episode Three — the one formally titled “Power to the People!” — cooled the temperature down again, with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil revisiting a couple of short pieces by Black American composers that the orchestra had played previously in Walt Disney Concert Hall, followed by a song from singer/songwriter Andra Day.

By now the routine has become fairly predictable for the episodes in which Gustavo and the orchestra are featured. Director James Lees’s cameras soar over and into the massive, empty Hollywood Bowl as the Phil’s Creative Chair for Jazz Herbie Hancock (who performed in the original ‘Power to the People!” festival but not here) gives an introductory speech about peace and justice. The socially distanced string players in the Phil are spread out all over the Bowl’s gigantic stage; they wear masks while Gustavo does not. The cameras are ceaselessly on the move within the Bowl shell as if this were a pop or rock concert; the absence of an audience and the spaces between the musicians makes this possible. The sound is faithful to the Bowl experience, with moderately cavernous reverberation from within the shell, and ambient noise from the nearby Hollywood Freeway as an undercurrent.

It is late afternoon one summer’s day, and Dudamel opens the 23-minute episode with a performance of the string orchestra version of Jessie Montgomery’s Banner (the version they played in March added six winds and horn). In subjecting wisps of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to irreverent neoclassical permutations, Montgomery lays down layers of things like the Mexican national anthem and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and employs short interludes in which the string players slide up and down the strings or slap the bodies of their instruments. It remains an invigorating piece of music that doesn’t wear out its welcome upon repetition.

At twilight time, following a film montage of historic black-and-white photos of civil-rights protests and Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, Dudamel leads a performance of the second movement, subtitled “Sorrow,” of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony. The entire symphony was played at one of Thomas Wilkins’s Harlem Renaissance concerts in Feb. 2019 downtown, but here in a chamber orchestra version, the Phil plays this excerpt even more beautifully and soulfully, with just enough bluesy inflections.

When night has fallen, the orchestra is gone, leaving the stage to Andra Day and her four-piece band (keyboards, guitar, electric bass, and drums). Day’s story proves the wisdom of Dave Brubeck’s advice to always do your best wherever you may be performing because you never know who may be listening. In Day’s case, she was singing in a strip mall when Stevie Wonder’s then-wife heard her and passed the word on to Stevie, who provided some connections to get her career rolling and eventually recorded a single with her, “Someday at Christmas.” She put out one album, Cheers to the Fall, in 2015 which contained a song, “Rise Up,” that was adopted as the anthem for Black Lives Matter.

“Rise Up” is what Day does here, a slow uplifting ballad in a performance that grows more impassioned as it goes. Though Day’s primary inspiration seems to have been Billie Holiday, she has her own keening timbre and way of phrasing. Charlie Buhler is the director now, often focusing the roving camera tightly on her face, and when the camera rolls back, it reveals the message “Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breanna Taylor” on the front of her black shirt and “Say Her Name” on the back.

Day gets Episode Four of SOUND/STAGE all to herself in an EP-length set of just three songs, with the same performance of “Rise Up” being the third. The cameras can’t keep still, constantly roaming around the vastly-separated musicians and singer. The stage is populated by upright light sabers, and a Plexiglas wall stands guard in front of the drum kit.

“Gold” is a jazzy ballad from her album that builds to a passionate climax. In between her own songs, Day inserts one of Nina Simone’s most incendiary pieces of material, the notorious “Mississippi Goddam,” done to a percolating, low-key, jazz-funk beat. Day’s rendition, unlike Simone’s fast-paced live recording, is at first cool and ironic, weaving around the tune and scatting during the breaks like a jazz singer, the words devoid of Simone’s anger. But eventually, David Wood’s fuzz-tone-sustain rock guitar solo gets her to wail before closing resignedly with the words, “I’m so upset; you should be pissed off too.” Given the brevity of this program and the overlapping material, Episode Three and Four really should have been folded into one.

If you burrow through the website, some additional attractions pop up. There is an essay by historian and Humanities Curator of the “Power to the People!” festival Tyree Boyd-Pates, “Artists As Activists,” that was supposed to have been published at the original festival. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges sings two Florence Price songs to Joanne Pearce Martin’s piano accompaniment — the highly dramatic “Hold Fast to Dreams” and a melodious salon song, “Out of the South a Wind Blew.” Over at the nearby Ford Amphitheatre, the politically-minded East L.A. band Las Cafeteras performs a daytime set with some Black, white, and Mexican history offered rap-style in “It’s Movement Time,” and an extroverted, eclectic rethinking of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba.”

“Artists are the gatekeepers of truth and civilization’s radical voice,” Boyd-Pates writes — and it would seem that the LA Phil buys wholeheartedly into this progressive agenda.

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.