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Sublime vs. Snafu at the Hollywood Bowl

Los Angeles Philharmonic

August 13, 2013

Gustavo DudamelThe house was divided against itself at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night as Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic attempted to record a live performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass, his monumental vision of death, damnation, and heavenly transfiguration.

It was a night where “state of the art” technology gave way to Murphy’s Law: If something could go wrong, it did, leaving the poor audience in a quandary, not knowing whether to watch the inept failures of the video unit that were blazingly displayed on the stage-flanking monitors, or to close their eyes and ignore the distractions in an effort to savor the grandeur of Verdi’s creation.

Classical music at the Bowl has always been a problematic experience, best preceded by a delicious picnic and at least one bottle of wine. In this vast amphitheater (which seats over 17,000) patrons in the highest-priced boxes close to the stage enjoy a predominantly acoustic performance. Those seated in the farther reaches hear a blend of acoustic and amplification, until you reach the most distant seats where the music sounds like a so-so car stereo. In the second tier of boxes (where I was seated) the sound is about a 50/50 blend. No two people at the Bowl actually hear the same concert.

In recent years the L.A. Philharmonic has also tried to “enhance” summer nights at the Bowl by adding bigger and ever-brighter video screens that project the action onstage.

Never has this confluence of technology and music-making been more at odds than it was for Tuesday’s performance, which, Dudamel pointed out, was the first effort of its kind in 10 years (apparently for good reason).

Parade of Gaffes

The first hint that all was not well came with the first utterances from the members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under the superb direction of Grant Gershon). Blending their voices with the shadowy opening phrase in the low strings, they sang “Requiem aternam dona eis Domine.” At which point the appropriate English translation (Eternal rest grant them, O Lord) should have appeared on the screens. It did not. And with no text available in the program, the audience was left to drift in a sea of indecipherable Latin.

Then the ineptitude of the video crew began to show itself as images of the stage floor littered with cables, musicians who weren’t playing, and eye-popping flashes of blank, white light filled the screens.

Probably unaware of these shortcomings, Dudamel (sans baton) used subtle hand gestures, coaxing gestures, and violent downbeats to elicit a performance that combined thunder and grace.

During the emotional tenor solo, “Ingemisco tamquam reus” (I groan as one guilty) that appears like an oasis amid the wrath of the “Dies irae”, all the TV cameras went down except for the one focused on Dudamel. This condition persisted for almost five minutes pre-empting a single shot of the tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who was singing so beautifully.

And there was still no translation of the text to follow, unless (I was told) you happened to have a seat in the most expensive boxes, which are equipped with their own bank of small monitors. Then, suddenly, during the Offertory the text appeared, only to disappear again.

These annoying distractions made it very difficult to focus on the emotion and orchestral coloration that Dudamel, the orchestra, soloists, and chorus were working so hard to produce. Then came the first of three (or was it four?) helicopters that buzzed by the Bowl like so many pesky insects, invariably during the quietest moments.

Finally, at the arrival the Sanctus, it all came together. The instrumentalists, chorus and soloists were exhibiting the type of tightly knit performance one expects from Dudamel. All the TV cameras were functioning properly and in sync with the score and even the subtitles appeared.

Throughout the performance mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung displayed impressive vocal power despite a rather fluttery vibrato. The young Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando d’Arcangelo provided resounding force, particularly in “Confutatis maledictis” (When the damned are confounded). But it was soprano Juliana Di Giacomo who lit up the night with her radiant tone and emotional gravitas in the concluding “Libera me.”

Fortunately for the combined forces (most notably the video production company, Bernard Fleisher Moving Images) there will be a second chance to get it right on Thursday. That, however, is no compensation for Tuesday’s audience, which had to cope with an evening that, on the technical side, felt more like a ragged dress rehearsal than a polished opening night performance.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).