Not since Kanye and Drake performed together at the Coliseum six months ago has there been such a coming together of opposing forces on a stage in Los Angeles, or perhaps anywhere else. We’re, of course, talking about the combined performance by the UCLA and USC marching bands (listed here in alphabetical order — no patronage) that culminated Friday night’s official summer season opener of the Hollywood Bowl.
It takes a lot to eclipse Gwen Stefani, the LA Phil, Gwen Stefani with the LA Phil, a pair of world-class ballet dancers, Branford Marsalis performing John Williams’ film music, and Williams making a surprise appearance to direct his own world premiere piece. But the combined army of USC and UCLA bands nearly pulled it off with what’s been touted as a historic first-ever collaboration, done in service of stretching Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” to nearly 10 minutes as the fireworks went off. above the banner.
This “Tusk squared” highlight was the icing on the cake of an evening dedicated to celebrating the Bowl’s 100th anniversary. (It’s actually the 101st, but 2021 was still a little too pandemic to throw a real party.) It was actually a night worthy of a centenary, with a gloomy June sea layer lying to the eternal promise of nights of the place. “under the stars” but more than enough star power on stage in a thoughtful lineup, something for every Bowl-er.
Proceedings began with “Centennial Overture” and the unannounced cameo of Williams, or, as he’s considered among many longtime Bowl season ticket holders, God. “Our dear friend John Williams – perhaps you know him – wrote an overture especially for our celebration”, Dudamel. “John first performed here 40 years ago in 1978. He wasn’t conducting his own music then, but we convinced him to. In fact, it doesn’t make much sense if I’m directing the opening. John, are you there? Please welcome, the greatest…” The just under six-minute track that followed under Williams’ baton could almost have been written in favor of a millennial instead of a centenarian – the Millennium Falcon, it is to say.
Another highlight of the first half of the evening was Williams’ music, too, as the composer’s perhaps understated facility for jazz styles came to the fore in a 13-minute excerpt from his score. “Catch Me If You Can”, with the great saxophone Marsalis. as lead instrumentalist throughout and alternates between lead LA percussionist Phil Matthew Howard on vibraphone and frequent Marsalis collaborator Eric Revis on double bass.
Two more traditional classical pieces preceded the intermission, with Roberto Bolle (American Ballet Theater principal dancer from 2009 to 2019) and Tiler Peck (New York City Ballet principal dancer, also since 2009) poetically performing eight minutes of the sublime George Balanchine ballet choreography, while the Philharmonie played extracts from “Apollo” by Stravinsky. Another young performer was honored in front of the august orchestra as the first act ended with Spanish violinist María Dueñas stirring the wine-soaked audience with Ravel’s ‘Gypsy’.
The second act immediately took a turn for the contemporary with DJ Novena Carmel, currently of KCRW “Morning Becomes Eclectic” fame, joined by sisterly dance trio Let It Happen to descend with James Brown and other beats. Let It Happen would return at the end of the night, doing a lot more choreography during “Hollaback Girl” as the pyrotechnics go off and Stefani comes out for a costume change, to slip into something more martial.
Before emerging in royal red for the last time, Stefani took the stage for her seven-song set in a hyperbolically frilly pink dress that opened up the front to reveal matching tights – something closer to what she could wear to the Met than anything that belies her OC roots. Speaking of which, Stefani had some kudos to offer Gwen-a-likes in the crowd. “I can see people wearing my (the) Met Ball outfits, which is amazing. I know it took a long time to make this dress. You look amazing.
Many opening nights spent at the Bowl have seen rock bands perform for the Phil or the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, such as Steely Dan, the Moody Blues, and Journey; other solo artists who joined the orchestras for an extravagant first night included John Legend and Diana Ross. It might have seemed like a good bet that Stefani would bring her band, and maybe even her dancers; they’re obviously in practice, as Stefani just did a co-headliner at the Crypto-dot-com Arena in January as part of the Super Bowl Festival, where she once again proved she’s one superior showwomen of modern pop. But for Friday’s extravaganza, apart from three backup singers, she had her musicians stay home and relied solely on backing from the Phil, with arrangements by Derek Hodge. This inevitably raised the question of just how suited his pop hits are for pure orchestration.
As his main (or No Doubt) ballad, “Don’t Speak” was the most obvious choice for a symphonic “pop party” treatment, so there were no surprises in hearing this number. ‘opening. “The Sweet Escape” wasn’t such an obvious candidate for Dudamel-ization, and it didn’t end up being something you’d say earnings something to replace bass and drums with oboes. With “Spiderwebs” the adaptation made sense: it’s not such a complete leap, after all, from the horns on a record produced when No Doubt was emerging from its ska phase towards the 76 (or more) trombones that LA Phil to offer. Two more sugary ballads followed – “Used to Love You”, followed by new husband Blake Shelton stepping out to perform his duet again on “Nobody But You”, giving the evening his schmaltz quotient.
It was with “Just a Girl”, perhaps surprisingly, that form met function and one of its signature songs truly took on a life of its own without a rock band driving it – its riff though. known to sound like something out of a Danny Elfman score in the hands of the Philharmonic. Stefani described it as a song “that I wrote in Anaheim at Patty and Dennis’ house – that would be her parents – “and I wrote that song very naively. I didn’t even know I could write a song, and I just wrote it because it came from my heart. And then all these years later pass, and I feel like this song is actually more relevant now than it ever was. You tell me.” In a twist, Stefani, parading on the platform around the pool section, urged the men in the crowd to sing the chorus while the women were to remain quiet. Man, they smelled like a woman.
There was comedy, both intentional and unintentional, when Stefani explained how bad she was with names – all names, she swore – and said that Shelton had trained her to remember the Dudamel’s name by having her sing to the tune of “Annie’s ‘Tomorrow’ as a pneumonic device. “Gus-tavo, Gus-tavo, I love you, Gus-tavo,” she sang, “you are always an asshole. Dud-a-mel, she added quickly, correcting herself. “Yes! It worked!” Well, it’s the enthusiasm that counts. It didn’t seem like the maestro cared about the mutilation; at least he seemed to be chuckling softly as the singer hit him with irreverent asides like, “What should we do next?…Let’s do another one!” Let’s do it!”
And there was plenty of that left to spend on the final bananas, which paraded the saints of opposing schools down the aisles and onto the stage, playing in unison with several collegiate conductors, but offering a study in contrast. between the very different dance styles of the two universities’ cheerleaders. (For the record: USC was more traditional, and UCLA went for something a little more in a sassy music video.)
Members of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), students who benefit from free musical training thanks to the largesse of the Philharmonic organizations or its patrons, also joined in the climax. As a perk, the Bowl’s opening night will help fund some viola-backed girls to fulfill their dreams, where one day maybe they too can play Stravinsky and Stefani in one night.