The Los Angeles Philharmonic has always been an enterprising organization, and especially so with impresario Ernest Fleishmann in charge. Today, under the leadership of current president Deborah Borda and Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, it is breaking new ground in all kinds of ways; for example, Dudamel is bringing the concept of El Sistema from Venezuela to the poorer neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, and the LA Phil is the first American orchestra to begin streaming live concerts into movie theatres. The second of these “LA Phil LIVE” performances, devoted to three Tchaikovsky symphonic poems inspired by Shakespeare, was presented on March 13. On the whole it was a triumph!
The first concert in this series, presented in January, was a fairly traditional programme of works by Adams, Bernstein and Beethoven; this second presentation, however, was much more imaginative. It included three orchestral pieces by Tchaikovsky: Hamlet, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet. The last of these is among Tchaikovsky’s best-known works, whereas the other two are rarely performed. All three were inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.
The performance of the music alone would have been interesting enough, but Dudamel and his orchestra went several steps further; they hired actors to perform excerpts from each of the plays, and these actors, with one exception, having memorized their lines, used various playing areas in front of and behind the orchestra to deliver them.
These actors included some “stars” from Broadway, film and television, among them Matthew Rhys (the Welsh actor currently starring in ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters”) giving us a large chunk of “Hamlet,” and Malcolm McDowell as the Ghost.
As part of The Tempest performance, we had McDowell again, playing Prospero from the organ loft.
Finally, as a preface to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, we had the ‘Balcony Scene’ with British actor Orlando Bloom of Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean fame and American Broadway actress Anika Noni Rose.
Each of the actors performed with distinction, but I was particularly struck by Ms. Rose’s mellifluous voice and intelligent line readings. It also seemed especially appropriate for a Los Angeles-based orchestra to reach out to the entertainment industry for participation in a production such as this.
Musically, the performances were on a very high level too. Dudamel didn’t have anything personal to reveal about Tchaikovsky’s music but he inspired the orchestra to play with commitment and excitement. There were a few too many horn cacks for a major orchestra and I have heard some of this music rendered more powerfully by the likes of Stokowski or Gergiev, but Dudamel and the LAPO served Tchaikovsky well.
Although I may concede that the audio is probably not of much concern to theatergoers who attend the “Met Live in HD” performances, I think I can safely assume that music lovers who go to see an orchestral concert expect more than HD quality video. They want HD quality sound too! If they don’t get it, they’re unlikely to pay $20 a ticket to come back the next time.
In these early days of concerts in HD, the audiences in many venues are miniscule – only 20 people in a theatre seating 150 at the performance I attended; with poor sound quality and almost no marketing to speak of, there may be even fewer people in the audience next time.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, Classical Airs.