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Music review: Opening night at the Hollywood Bowl

June 19, 2011 |  3:55 pm

The syncopated pleasures of the Caribbean basin conga-ed into the Hollywood hills Friday, as the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame inducted musical ambassadors from Miami and New Orleans.

Gloria Estefan, the queen of Latin pop, and jazz singer and pianist Harry Connick Jr. brought salsa and boogie woogie into the swanky, schmaltzy festivities honoring the opening night of the summer season.

The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins, kicked off the concert with the Overture for “Colas Breugnon,”  by Russian composer Dmitry Kabalevsky. It was a kinetic performance that would soon be eclipsed by circus acrobatics, fancy two-stepping and clave workouts.

Celebrators with picnic baskets filled the bowl from the box seats to the back lawn. In her opening remarks, Dame Helen Mirren set a tone of erudition and wonder as she praised this “iconic symbol of culture” with “18,000 people focused together on beauty and harmony.” What critic dare argue with the queen?

Irisbowl A team of acrobats from Cirque du Soleil provided the first public peek at "Iris," the tribute to cinema that begins previews at the Kodak Theatre on July 21. The Crayola-colored gremlins tumbled and twirled and leapt -- sometimes using each other’s feet as launching pads, as if they were made out of springs. The orchestra played the bejesus out of Danny Elfman’s original score, which sounds likely to be a great asset. Wilkins saluted the "Simpsons’" songwriter, who was present, as “one of the great American composers.”

Perhaps in comparison to the tumblers’ agility, Hilary Swank seemed stiff and formal as she stumbled over her introduction of Connick. The singer was likewise awkward as he sang the jazz standard “The Way You Look Tonight.” He admitted cracking a few notes, then said he was glad he was not a Cirque acrobat: “The equivalent of cracking a note for them and you die.” That moment of banter in a largely scripted evening broke the ice. Connick crooned the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” (an appropriate song for the venue), his Sinatra tones, which are waxing deeper and richer with age, caressing the notes.

It wasn’t until he reached back to his Louisiana heritage that Connick truly broke loose. Joined by Crescent City brass players Lucien Barbarin and Mark Braud, he “showed the audience how we dance in New Orleans,” then shook his tail feather around the stage. With his marquee looks, Connick has become a movie star. But in a fierce piano solo in which he completely left the meter in the able hands of the orchestra and pursued his own Monkish muse, he showed that he has not lost his roots in America’s deepest musical tradition -- that at heart, he’s a jazz man. In a night in which every person who walked onstage was verbally defined by what awards they had won, I believed Connick when he said, “I don’t base my art on success.”

Gloriaandy Estefan likewise mines a deep cultural vein -- what regions have given the world more great music than Louisiana and Cuba? Even her disco and pop hits get their beat from the clave rhythm -- that’s why they call the song “Conga.” Estefan wryly acknowledged that she would be playing that classic until she died. She performed with her longtime collaborators the Miami Sound Machine, with the orchestra providing a largely drowned-out backing, and with a wisecracking, self-consciously hirsute Andy Garcia on percussion. (He’s playing a homeless person in a film, he explained as he introduced his sister Miamian.)

Estefan’s voice also has grown affectingly husky. It shone when she sang in Spanish, less so on the overbearing Olympics song “Reach.” Estefan came off as droll and practical, Connick as quirky and intense. They came together beautifully on a duet of “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

The night was dedicated to raising funds for musical education. Between the star presentations, an orchestra made up of students from West Adams Preparatory High School and the James A. Foshay Learning Center ably performed James L. Hosay’s “Heaven’s Valley.”


Cirque du Soleil has a Kodak (Theatre) moment during sneak preview of new show 'Iris'

Hollywood Bowl tidbits

Music: Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl

-- Evelyn L. McDonnell

Photos: Top, Gloria Estefan and Harry Connick Jr. perform a duet after both are honored at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday night. Middle: Performers from Cirque du Soleil's upcoming film-themed show "Iris" offer a glimpse of the production. Bottom: Actor Andy Garcia accompanies Estefan on bongos. Credit: Gina Ferazzi /Los Angeles Times