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Ranking the Top 10 Hollywood Bowl concerts I saw this summer

While I’m excited to be returning to Walt Disney Concert Hall tonight, I’m bummed that my 2022 Hollywood Bowl summer is now officially over (wipe away a tear . . . sniffle, sniffle). So before we move on to the 2022/23 indoor season, let’s take a moment to reflect on how awesome the summer has been. 

I had the privilege to attend ten Bowl concerts across a panoply of genres. Here’s how I ranked them, from least to most favorite: 

10.  “American Stories” (Aug 18, 2022) 

The “Powers That Be” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been increasing their efforts to inject Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into their programming.  The best artistic endeavors in this (or any) regard celebrate a particular aspect of American or international culture in a way that is musically compelling, while also managing to get butts in seats by introducing audiences to these unfamiliar works in the context of more popular pieces.

Some of the concerts this summer succeeded on both fronts, others on one or the other. This concert did neither.

Let’s start with the attendance. The program itself was challenging: a little-played anchor, Copland’s Billy the Kid, sharing space with a world premiere and newer piece, both of which comment on the Black experience in America with unabashed social justice overtones. The result was one of the smallest crowds I’ve ever seen at the Bowl (the LA Phil no longer releases attendance figures, but eyeballing it, I’d say less than one-third of the seats were filled). 

In execution, the newer works (Portrait of a Queen by Carlos Simon and “Concerto No. 2:  Anthems,” created and curated by baritone Davóne Tines in collaboration with Michael Schachter, Caroline Shaw, Tyshawn Sorey, and Mahogany L. Browne) had much to say lyrically and intellectually; yet even when the music itself included an interesting phrase here or and a noteworthy idea there, it was not compelling overall. 

Net net:  if you were one of the many who decided to skip this concert, you didn’t miss much. 

That said, the performers gave their all and were excellent throughout.   

Kudos first and foremost to conductor Joseph Young in his LA Phil debut for leading the proceedings with elan.  The evening was full of difficult music that the orchestra had rarely or never played; his ability to keep things on track during the thorniest sections of the Copland while finding nuance where he could, all with limited rehearsal time, was noteworthy. I hope to see him conduct the LA Phil again. [Read my interview with him HERE

Debbie Allen was at her regal best as the narrator in Simon’s work, and Mr. Tines was vocally strong and charismatic.  The orchestra was generally solid, though there were moments where ensemble playing was less than tidy, which shouldn’t be surprising given the new and rarely-performed music and the limited rehearsal time Bowl concerts get. 

9.  “The Splendor of Saint-Saens” (August 4, 2022) 

I’m a fan of Paolo Bortolameolli. The LA Phil’s Associate Conductor can be relied upon for unfussy yet interesting interpretations and this night was no exception. All three Saint-Saëns works (Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah; Cello Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 3, “Organ”) were taut, cello soloist Pablo Ferrández was solid, and the orchestra played well.  

Despite that, two things put this concert near the bottom of the pack:  

  • The organ in the “Organ Symphony” just doesn’t pack the same punch outdoors at the Bowl as it does indoors at Walt Disney Concert Hall. No matter how much you can crank up the volume on those speakers, actual pipes trump an electric organ. 
  • Making matters worse, the amplification on this night was particularly bad. Balances were off, the tone was washed out, and multiple times, an annoying noise which sounded like something scraping across a microphone intruded upon the music. 
Paolo Bortolameolli

8. “Beethoven’s Fifths” (July 26, 2022) 

Gustavo Dudamel conducting Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto: on paper, this had high potential, and it should’ve been a top-notch concert regardless of who the soloist was in the concerto. Alas, that’s not how it turned out. 

Pianist Seong-Jin Cho’s interpretation of the “Emperor” was certainly pretty and technically precise, but was rarely more than that. Moreover, his approach was consistently reflective from start to finish. I would’ve preferred less restraint combined with more contrast. On the other hand, Mr. Dudamel’s take on the famous 5th symphony was mostly straight but punctuated with quirky moments that were distracting. Combined, these weren’t bad interpretations, they just weren’t particularly memorable ones. 

Thankfully, the orchestra played beautifully throughout. That said, I’m interpolating a bit because the amplification was problematic the whole night, muffling the orchestra so that it sounded like it was playing behind a curtain. 

Seong-Jin Cho

7. “Musical Encounters with Dudamel and esperanza spalding” (Aug 2, 2022) 

The big draw for me in this concert was the performance of Gaia, a Wayne Shorter composition for vocalist, jazz combo, and orchestra written for the incomparable Ms. spalding (who, in case you didn’t already know, eschews capitalizations in her name). I had missed the world premiere in 2013 and I’d be damned if I missed it this time. 

She was awesome — as best as I could tell, at least; once again, the Bowl’s amplification system was no one’s friend. Her singing were clear enough that you could hear her navigate the complex vocal lines with precision and style, even if it was tough to make out the lyrics. Unfortunately, the details of her bass playing along with Matthew Stevens’ guitar were buried underneath a wall of sound of everything else being played; you could see her fingers move but it was nearly impossible to catch any notes, let along the nuance in phrasing for which she’s known. 

The sound system was less problematic for the two orchestral works. The world premiere of Encuentro Obertura Festiva by Giancarlo Castro D’Addona was interesting and fun, giving the young musicians of the Encuentros Orchestra (a collection of students from El sistema style student ensembles from around the world) an opportunity to strut their stuff. I’d be happy to hear it again. 

Mr. Dudamel’s take on Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, “From the New World,” was solid. The talented pick-up student orchestra sounded, well, as good as you’d expect a talented pick-up student orchestra to sound: enthusiastic even if they were, at times, imprecise in ensemble and intonation. It was enjoyable nonetheless. 

6. “Carmina Burana with Dudamel” (Jul 28, 2022) 

This was a really good concert.  

For starters, the world premiere of Gonzalo Grau’s “Odisea: Concerto for Venezuelan Cuatro and Orchestra” was phenomenal. The piece was full of interesting moments which coalesced and unfurled beautifully into a greater whole that was complex yet approachable. LA Phil Associate Principal Flute Cathy Karoly had some noteworthy contributions.  

Cuatro soloist Jorge Glem, playing the 4-string instrument similar in size to a baritone ukulele, was a virtuoso and a showman. His role was subdued until the late cadenza, which gave him the chance to strut his stuff. Thanks to some coaxing from Mr. Dudamel, he improvised an encore in which he managed to riff on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, Bizet’s Carmen, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, the Venezuelan National Anthem, and – best of all – a preview of “O Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana. [Excerpts from Odisea below, and I highly recommend you invest the 4+ minutes to watch the amazing encore performance HERE

Elena Villalón

Speaking of Carmina, it was a ton of fun in its own right. This piece is smack dab in the middle of Mr. Dudamel’s wheelhouse, and he knocked it out of the park. No need for anything eccentric, just hard driving rhythms and pretty melodies. Props to the Los Angeles Master Chorale for sounding great and to Jenny Wong, their Associate Artistic Director for ensuring they did. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, prepared by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, was excellent as well.  

The three vocal soloists were more of a mixed bag.  

By far the best of them was Cuban-American soprano Elena Villalón, who squeezed this trip to LA in between performances of Falstaff at Santa Fe Opera. Thank goodness she did. Her voice was strong and pure, her phrases nuanced, and her demeanor alluring. Oh, and she’s gorgeous. I was smitten. Remind me to catch her whenever she’s back in town, regardless of what she’s singing.  Until then, check out some clips of her singing that night by swiping to the second and third parts of her Instagram post below.

Baritone Elliott Madore was mostly fine, though he lost power and luster at the top and bottom of his range. Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis was earnest, but his singing was not for me: he seemed to want to make Orff sound like Puccini, and he didn’t succeed.

Still, I would’ve rushed to see this concert again if I could. I really thought it’d be higher on the list; the other five concerts were just that much better. 

4. (tie) “Black Movie Soundtrack IV” (August 24, 2022) and “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In” (September 22, 2022) 

Unabashed joy. Dancing in the aisles. Singing along with tunes.  That’s what immediately comes to mind for these two quite different concerts. 

Reginald Hudlin, Craig Robinson, Marcus Miller

Black Movie Soundtrack night is one of those “only at the Hollywood Bowl” events, and let’s say a prayer of thanksgiving that the decision-makers brought it back for a fourth go-around. Once again, Reginald Hudlin and Marcus Miller curated, with Mr. Miller leading the musical proceedings with an all-star combo and backed by Thomas Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Craig Robinson returned as the indefatigable host.  

The film montage featuring music from Blaxploitation movies was the best instrumental stuff performed. A plethora of guest vocalists also contributed to the festivities, though the undeniable highlight of the evening was Grammy and Tony award-winner Jennifer Holliday making her Bowl debut to sing a show-stopping rendition of “And I am Telling You, I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls. I’m not sure I’ve experienced a bigger ovation in this venue. 

Kenny Loggins

Roughly one month later, Kenny Loggins, stopped by for the first of two shows. He kicked off the evening with his former partner, Jim Messina, singing the folk-tinged pop/rock for which they became famous. Both sounded in excellent voice and blended nearly as seamlessly as they did decades ago.   

After intermission, Mr. Loggins started a solo set of his own hits plus a rarely heard tune or two, before launching into the movie music portion of the evening, starting with “Meet Me Halfway.” He amusingly played “the other song” from Footloose (“I’m Free”) and “the other song” from Top Gun (“Playing with the Boys”) before ending the main set with “I’m Alright,” the gopher-grooving end credit number from Caddyshack. His encore started with a raucous “Highway to the Danger Zone” that went straight into “Footloose,” then closing with “Forever,” Mr. Loggins nailing the high note at the end. 

Good times, good times. 

3. “Dudamel and Paris Opera Ballet” (July 21, 2022) 

The short version: Another wonderful “only at the Bowl” experience. I’m not normally drawn to ballet, but this was amazing stuff. The visiting dancers and the resident musicians were world class and performed like it. The Bowl’s sound system was on its best behavior. It was an enthralling evening by all measures. 

The long version: read my detailed review HERE 

2. “Flying Lotus and Hiatus Kaiyote with Orchestra” (August 21, 2022) 

It’s a treat to see and hear Australian neo-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote under any circumstance. Experiencing them at the Bowl was my highest priority of the summer. Their performance managed to exceed my lofty expectations, primarily because Nai Palm, lead singer and guitarist, is a vocal magician who managed the most challenging jazz-tinged phrases as if she were merely breathing. They traversed half of their latest release, Mood Valient, with casual intensity, inserting “Nakamarra” and “Molasses” mid-stream to the delight of the partisan crowd, before being joined by Mr. Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for the other songs from the album.  

Headliner Flying Lotus was spectacular in his own right. This night, the multi-talented musician got started with new material that was less extroverted, more atmospheric than what he played when he opened for Thundercat at one of last summer’s post-quarantine Bowl re-opening celebrations. Five tracks later, the LA-native was joined by Mr. Wilkins and the orchestra for more upbeat selections from earlier albums including Cosmogramma, The Night Comes, the soundtracks to Grand Theft Auto V and Yasuke,  and even “Interstellar Love” from Thundercat’s album It Is what It Is (for which FlyLo and Thundercat both served as executive producers). He ended the night with “Do the Astral Plane” and the very appreciative crowdate it up.

Overall, it was an evening of music that was undeniably postmodern yet rooted in traditions old and new.  Great stuff. Cheers to violinist and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson for all of his important contributions. 

1. “An Evening of Rachmaninoff” (August 16, 2022) 

Rachmaninoff and the Bowl just go together naturally. His grand gestures, intricate passages, and sweeping melodies are well suited to the vast expanse of 17,000+ seats. For the performers, playing Russian-cum-Angeleno’s music is guaranteed to please the crowds, though truly memorable performances can be hard to come by for those of us who’ve heard his music frequently.

Credit conductor Louie Langrée for making the 2nd Symphony feel fresh. He didn’t do anything dramatic, just small things with pacing, tempi, and dynamics to make it more interesting — dare I say “fresh.” This is even more impressive considering the limited rehearsal time at the Bowl, and especially since he was making his debut with the orchestra with relatively short notice (he had been announced to replace the late Bramwell Tovey only two weeks earlier). He was aided by gorgeous playing by the orchestra – especially Principal Clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan in the second movement – and some sympathetic amplification from the Bowl’s sound system.  

Similarly impressive and even more memorable was pianist Nobuyuki Sujii‘s rendition of the 2nd Piano Concerto. His speed and power don’t rival stars such as Yuja Wang or Yefim Bronfman, but his technical skills were easily sufficient for this famously knuckle-busting piece. More importantly, his phrasing was masterful, pushing and pulling with just enough rubato without allowing things to turn saccharine. It was the most compelling Rach 2 I’ve heard by any pianist in more than a decade. 

Oh, and in case you didn’t know: Sujii-san is blind.  

That he could pull off that performance without the benefit of seeing the keys is borderline miraculous and undeniably inspiring. I don’t know if I’d believe it unless I heard – and saw – it for myself. Yet this was no David Helfgott-style curiosity show: this was brilliant musicianship by a remarkable musician, period. 

Taken together, music and the performances were enough to make this my favorite concert of the summer. The extraordinary pianist made it one I’ll remember for a lifetime.

Nobuyuki Sujii

Photo credits:

  • Joseph Young: photo by Louis Bryant III Copyright: © 2020 Louis Bryant Photography
  • Paolo Bortolameolli: courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
  • Seong-Jin Cho: photo by Herald Hoffman, courtesy of Primo Artists
  • Elena Villalón: photo by Fay Fox, courtesy of the artist’s website
  • Reginald Hudlin, Craig Robinson, Marcus Miller: courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
  • Kenny Loggins: Alex J. Berliner © ABImages, courtesy of the artist’s website
  • Nobuyuki Sujii: photo by Yuji Hori

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