For more photos, see Mark Edward Harris' slideshow.

Herbie Hancock, Gustavo “The Dude” Dudamel conducting the L.A. Phil

Walt Disney Concert Hall

September 27, 2011

Better Than: Multitasking to a Gershwin recording. Actually listening again is a revelation.

Go ahead, put “Rhapsody in Blue” in a million more United Airlines commercials. There are few pieces of music that could withstand such abuse and still come out shining. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Opening Night Gala stuck to a highly accessible and popular all-Gershwin program, with a big fat cherry on top: jazz legend Herbie Hancock on piano. “Eeesn't it wonderful to have Erbie Ancock?” bubbled Dudamel in his introduction of the composer and pianist, who also serves as the L.A. Philharmonic's Creative Chair for jazz. Herbie and the Dude did make a compelling team, grinning and nodding approvingly at one another during their entire shared performance.

Dudamel in rehearsal; Credit: Mark Edward Harris

Dudamel in rehearsal; Credit: Mark Edward Harris

Hancock's entrance, however, was saved for the middle of the show. The evening began with the Philharmonic playing “Cuban Overture” (“I went back there to drink a Mojito,” Dudamel cracked after a brief trip backstage) and “An American In Paris,” Gershwin's musical saga of dizzying traffic, sultry Parisian hookers, sqawking nightclubs, homesickness, and the sense of isolation that can follow finding oneself in a foreign city.

Disney Hall's theater-in-the-round-style seating creates an intimate, airy feeling, and because the house lights are only moderately dimmed during performances, fellow audience members are always visible, heightening the sense of shared experience.

Overhead, billowy clouds of wood magically suspended in midair drape like the ceiling of a Bedouin tent, while below, on the venue's low stage, a giant, gleaming concert grand was rolled to the apron, heralding Hancock's arrival.

With the members of the orchestra silently looking on, seeming grateful for their front-row seats, Hancock dedicated his solo rendition of “Embraceable You” to his wife Gigi, in honor of her birthday. This was followed by a hypnotic version of “Someone To Watch Over Me,” in which Hancock squeezed entirely new emotions out of a standard you only think you've heard a million times before. What once might have seemed like the simple plaint of a girl wishing for a beau was reborn in Hancock's hands as a wrenching expression of yearning.

After this too-brief two-song solo set, Hancock began his first-ever performance in the company of a symphony orchestra. Shortly after the first clarinet notes of “Rhapsody in Blue” sounded, Dudamel at times was bouncing more like an encouraging aerobics teacher than an orchestra conductor, while Hancock went hardcore on the rubato, so much so that he at one point even drove the audience into a fit of giggles in response to his teasing phrasing.

Yet at other points, Hancock's piano was drowned out by the rest of the orchestra. It was enough to make you wish Disney Hall's acoustics weren't so perfectly tuned to the orchestra as a whole, but more skewed toward the evening's star soloist.

The Crowd: Swanky, with a modest smattering of celebs. More than a few have the preternaturally distended smiles of plastic surgery patients. In So Cal, “Black tie” means only one or two people are wearing jeans.

Random notebook dump: That clarinetist couldn't be happier about getting to play the opening notes of “Rhapsody In Blue.” And how you get the job of orchestral maraca player?

Program below.


Cuban Overture

An American in Paris

Embraceable You

Someone To Watch Over Me

Rhapsody In Blue

LA Weekly