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Hollywood Bowl Puts On Season Finale Soirée

Leslie Velez |
September 18, 2011 | 10:43 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Although the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra’s season finale concert is titled “A Night at The Moulin Rouge,” I would like to officially subtitle it, “Not Your Momma’s French Music.”

The Hollywood Bowl (Credit Leslie Velez)
The Hollywood Bowl (Credit Leslie Velez)

The music I heard last night was not impressionistic piano fluff or abstract beyond comprehension. Featured instead were pieces by composers who had a sense of humor to go along with the ridiculous, bizarre, and decadent, and who gleefully wrote music with that special and arousing French flamboyance.   

  The concert began on a playful note with an orchestra arrangement of the overture to Jerry Herman’s musical "La Cage aux Folle." The music of this 1973 play, remade into a Tony-award winning musical and told in the comedy film The Birdcage, is “French cancan meets Broadway,” and Bowl Orchestra conductor Thomas Wilkins seemed to take up that spirit, swaying and kicking to the beat as he deftly led the ensemble through theme and tempo changes (as overtures go, there were many).

The piece began with exuberantly cascading woodwind passages tumbling amid a brass fanfare; the strings then had their turn playing accompaniment offbeats while the wind section showcased their Broadway chops. The horn section came through in fits and starts, soaring high over the ensemble then falling fast out of earshot. Timpanist Judith Chilnick impressed with her commanding final five-ones of the piece.  

The roaring prologue, set in the musical in a night club, was a fitting introduction to the Moulin Rouge evening, and the next excerpt carried the audience to another theatrical setting, the ballroom scene of the 1887 comic opera "Le roi malgré lui," which translates to The King in Spite of Himself (know anyone like that?).

Composer Emmanuel Chaubrier’s Fête Polonaise is the sound strip to a scene in which many of the opera’s silly schemes and collusions come to head. The concert music started with the call of heralding trumpets, very finely executed, and settled into heavy-footed waltz with the strings singing a strident melody, evoking French mesdames et messieurs of the court looking down very proper noses as they step.

Chaubrier’s “great fantasy” wound through equally affecting moods of mystery, merrymaking, and grandiose pomp before ending an unroyal fervor, as if dancers had twirled themselves into hysteria. The charming piece was an excellent segue to the following offering, a ballet that, even in the words of the enlightened Thomas Wilkins, was “wacky and crazy.”

The ballet of the Dance of Phryne, a Greek mistress known for winning a court trial by shedding all of her garments, is part of the tail end of Charles-Francois Gounod’s opera Faust, which premiered in 1859 to great success.

Her dance played by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra alternated between a sweet, lyrical string section melody and a fiery and singular full-orchestra statement, uncondensed with bells ringing, cymbals crashing, high woodwinds, unrelenting brass, and powerful, rhythmic strings all playing in a frenetic tumble, and capitulating in a dramatic brass sustained lament. I suspect someone died.

Then in a somewhat strange turn of events, the concert lineup proceeded directly to 1930s big band favorite April in Paris. Vernon Duke’s classic had a syrupy, cool jazz quality to it the Bowl Orchestra’s hands, with trickling piano sounds and the swinging husha-husha of a brushed snare drum, character that would have made Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong proud. At the end of the ode to the Parisian spring, causing the audience to sigh in appreciation for that musical gem.

The concert’s first half closed with American George Gershwin’s 1928 semi-autobiographical rhapsodic ballet, "An American in Paris." He left this piece only suggestively programmatic, remindful of certain scenes and images of his time in Paris but never directly defining; the audience receives then, as it were, a Parisian postcard from Gershwin.

Heard were sounds of the city, brash sound clusters of brass mimicking car horns and the metallic, percussive hammerings of the snare drum, cymbal, and talkative xylophone. The energy was interrupted for a time by poignant melancholy--a moment of homesickness on Gershwin’s part--conveyed in beautifully musing solos played on the English horn, clarinet, and oboe. We came into the musical backdrop of a jazz club, languid and smooth, with brilliantly played solos out of the trumpet and trombone section that were true to the music on the page but infused with the individual personality. It was nice to see a symphony musicians know how to swing. As our expatriate recovered from his momentary gloom, the ensemble gathered speed and spirit.

Thomas Wilkins revved its motor with winding arm motions until he morphed into a big band leader, vigorously navigating through newly dense, competing brass and string chords and rhythms. The music of this boisterous section of the piece could be listened to independently, separating winds and strings, and you could garner a different impression from each one. They seemed to be talking, shouting even, to the crowd--the sound of Paris perhaps?--and each insisted on being heard. Jazz rhythms crept back in, new ornamentation, and before the final grand orchestral statement, a violin and tuba solo returned us to the man whose imagination led listeners through Paris. Here it was if Gershwin was sitting in a cafe with a jazzer tubist nearby, putting pen to that postcard, the violin telling his words.

If you have ever wondered what it would sound like if you were to commingle musical sounds and styles from cultures the world over, we heard it last night at the Hollywood Bowl. Paris-rooted by internationally-influenced band Paris Combo brought their signature exotic stylings to the second half of the evening’s concert. Singer-songwriter Belle du Berry leads a jazz combo-type cast of players (she also plays the accordion, but didn’t bring it out this night) that includes self-taught Gypsy guitar talent Potzi, Australian David Lewis on trumpet, flugelhorn, and piano, Madagascar native Emmanuel Chabbey on bass, and François-François (François Jeannin) keeping time on drums. Berry is a 1940s jazz singer in sound and appearance, exuding a dash of sexy, a pinch of vixenish sass, and with her pixie-gamine’s hair, fair skin, and blue eyes, a dose of French glamour. For the performance she wore a liquid-y black floor length gown and a white feather collar about her shoulders; the whole outfit moved as she did, sensually flowing. She perfected her aura of French sultriness by prettily breathing, “Merci beaucoup...thank you very much” into the microphone after every song.

There is no one word to describe Paris Combo’s musical leanings. Their handful of songs often featured cadenza-like passages from guitar virtuoso Potzi, who, were it not for the sheen of sweat on his brow, seemed at ease to the point to napping Chabbey’s bass ostinato and trumpeter David Lewis’s appreciation of a cup mute gave way to a decidedly jazz bend. Lewis also lent a hand on piano, often playing horn and keys at the same time. Now that’s talent. At one point Paris Combo and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra ganged up together into a big band, and after Belle gave fair warning--”Now we are going to dance”--played a hip-shaking syncopated number in triple meter that had a hypnotizing pulse.

It began with a guitar flourish that sounded like a snake charm, and the song could have claimed origin from any or all of the following: France, Eastern Europe, Africa, Arabia, Spain, Gypsy, Greece, jazz, rock ‘n roll. Call it mix. Call it all of the above. You would probably be right.  The French language is a velvet sound sensation all its own. I did wonder in passing what Belle du Berry’s song lyrics translate to (none were provided), but it didn’t really matter. It became part of the eclectic style, another element on the list of influential powers that made this band simply enchanting.

The big finish came with the high-stepping dancers from Paris’s Moulin Rouge. A cast of seventeen ladies and just one male dancer--the real, authentic French Moulin Rouge performers, not a substitute group--set about a chorus line show that enthralled the audience with its energy and downright fun. Fueled by the Bowl Orchestra’s blazing Cancan (named that, incidentally, not by a Frenchman or woman but by a British subject named Charles Morton), the company danced mostly on just one foot, demonstrating impressive sets of high kicks and skips while shouting, whistling, and squealing with excitement.

There was plenty of enthusiastic skirt-lifting to reveal ruffled bloomers and red garters, and acrobatics of cartwheels, somersaults, and handsprings drew gasps from the crowd. The Moulin Rouge dancers ended their dance segments with a series of rock star kick splits that landed them, in unison, on the ground, legs extended in fully opposite directions, with noses to knees. It was breathtaking to see them do it--you either winced or cheered--but the dancers seemed to be enjoying themselves so much on stage that the audience’s exuberance grew to match.

A choreographed fireworks display set off close to the audience from the roof of the Bowl shell and one last overture, Jacque Offenbech’s 1868 La vie Parisienne, closed out the concert, and daresay there wasn’t a person in the audience left cold by the performance.

The show flowed well, with each piece and segment being of an appropriate length, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra’s sampling of music showed a refreshing side of French style and personality that I was glad to hear. From Gounod to Paris Combo to kicks-so-high-her-foot-was-behind-her-head, it was everything “A Night at the Moulin Rouge” should be: captivating, alluring, and whimsical, a thrilling theatrical exhibition of French artistry performance artistry.


Reach reporter Leslie Velez here and follow her on Twitter.

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