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Music review: Juanjo Mena and Labeques at the Hollywood Bowl

September 2, 2011 |  1:09 pm


There is a moment in Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, which Katia and Marielle Labèque played at the Hollywood Bowl Thursday night, that is stunningly other. If this were a movie, we would see a bustlingly bon vivant Parisian street scene suddenly cut away, without warning, to batik and a gently lapping beach on Bali. The soundtrack would just as suddenly change from honking horns, buzzing motor bikes and street chatter to the gorgeous glitter of a gamelan’s gently lapping bells.

There is no real reason for this, other than just before writing the piece, Poulenc heard a Balinese gamelan when one of the island's ensembles of gongs visited Paris, and he decided to imitate it. He doesn’t stick with the evocative tinkle for long in the slow movement, moving on to a delicious Mozartean middle section. Not surprisingly, French critics needing to uphold classical standards accused Poulenc, at the 1932 premiere of the concerto, of producing pastiche.

Few of us dismiss pastiche any longer. Two days earlier at the Bowl, a screening of “Powaqqatsi,” with Philip Glass’ multi-styed score, was a poignant reminder that world cultures are in continual transformation. Poulenc was a transformer. He was the first major composer to precisely translate the sound of the gamelan to Western instruments (it became almost a fad a few years later). Indonesian music influenced earlier French composers, notably Debussy, but the absorption was more indirect.

The Labèques' splendid performance was a timely reminder of such transformation, especially since the rest of the Los Angeles Philharmonic program, in which Basque conductor Juanjo Mena made his Bowl debut, was Spanish themed and more geographically predictable.

The sisters are, of course, old Bowl hands, two-piano regulars here for more than two decades. Still, they haven’t lost a trace of glamour, gained a pound or diminished the height of their heels (of near Yuja Wang precariousness) by a fraction of an inch. What keeps growing with them, though, is their capacity to play off each other competitively, like Indian or jazz musicians, while appearing to be a single four-handed organism.

Their sound is glittery. Their rhythmic accuracy is sensational. They were clearly having a very good time with music that is meant to express good times whether on the street or a seductive island. But they also need to bop a bit more than they can get away with in Poulenc. For an encore, they excitingly jazzed up the “Jet Song” from “West Side Story.” 

Juanjo Mena A Bowl debut is like speed dating with an orchestra, and not ideal for every conductor. A few (very few), like Gustavo Dudamel, can make their name on this stage. Mena has what appears to be a congenial manner on the podium but rarely got better than dutiful playing. He probably wasn’t helped by the fact that this is the time on the summer treadmill when a certain routine enters into the orchestra.

Mena began and ended with showy, popular dances by Manuel de Falla. Interlude and Dance from “La Vida Breve was the curtain raiser; “The Three-Cornered Hat” Suite No. 2 concluded an unusually short evening. The major work after intermission was Debussy’s “Ibèria.”

A little listening between the lines revealed a conductor who can swing. There was a lot of dance music here and Mena led like a partner who would be comfortable on the dance floor. He occasionally got a little carried away with a toreador move or two, but mostly he strived for atmosphere and mood and motion. The L.A. Philharmonic was its professional self, but there wasn’t a great sense of chemistry. At least, yet. This was clearly one of those Bowl evenings when it simply wasn’t possible to tell.

It was also discouraging to find a small audience of a mere 4,303. I hope that was the result of it being the Thursday before Labor Day, and the Bowl wasn't where everyone wanted to go to dream of Bali. It can’t possibly be that Angelenos aren’t attracted to Spanish music, can it?

Then again, last month when the Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos performed Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” at the Bowl the attendance was modest. When Frühbeck led Beethoven’s Ninth two days later, the crowd had doubled.

Dudamel, on the other hand, programmed the same Falla pieces as Mena with the Berlin Philharmonic last New Year’s Eve and, from the evidence of the DVD of that concert, Berliners were practically jumping out of their seats. Maybe he should consider a Falla fix for our Philharmonic.


Music review: Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos at the Hollywood Bowl

Review: Andriessen Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere

Music review: 'Powaqqatsi' at the Hollywood Bowl

-- Mark Swed

Photo: above, Katia, left, and Marielle Labèque performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl; below, Juanjo Mena. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times