Music Review: DIANA ROSS SINGS MEMORIES WITH THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL ORCHESTRA

by Tony Frankel on June 20, 2018

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

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MISS ROSS REVIVED MEMORIES,
BUT DIDN’T BOWL US OVER

Last Saturday was an unusually grey and chilly night for June. Unfortunately, the program for the opening night of the Hollywood Bowl’s 2018 season was as mild as the weather. I suppose it’s enough that the event raised more than $1.75 million for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s educational efforts — which includes the Phil’s initiative known as Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA). The full house of over 17,000 patrons meant that free, high quality instrumental and orchestral education for over 1000 under-served youth will continue in the form of master classes and courses for young students just getting started. (Quoting Langston Hughes, the ever-charming maestro Thomas Wilkins, reminded us to “Hold fast to your dreams.”) That same full house meant choked traffic that added an hour to get in from half a mile away, and — for those stuck in the middle of stacked parking — up to 90 minutes just to get out.

Why was it so packed? The headliner was pop superstar Diana Ross.

But sound issues, too little music, and a tepid performance by Ms. Ross added up to a big meh.

Not enough superlatives can be tossed at The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (HBO), which is made up of about 80 players, an international mix of classically trained musicians — many of whom spend their days on Hollywood’s scoring stages. (While this was an LA Phil fundraiser, there is no overlap between the musicians of that outfit and the HBO.) Sadly, the first half of the program contained only nineteen minutes of music, which seems rather paltry.

Slava!, a rarely played four-minute “Political Overture for Orchestra” by Leonard Bernstein, has a Copeland-esque, brisk, jaunty tempo that burst the evening wide open. Accompanying film clips of YOLA kids — shown on the Bowl’s gigantic screens — was Adventures on Earth, John Williams’ ten-minute suite from the film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. And the excitement was palpable as 30 players selected from YOLA joined their colleagues on stage, handling with aplomb the tricky rhythms of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s five-minute Conga del fuego Nuevo (Conga of New Fire). The beefy brass, soaring strings and, on harp, stunning work from Mindy Ball, gave us a sparkling, scintillating, spicy sound.

After plenty of time to schmooze during the 35-minute intermission, Ms. Ross sauntered on looking positively astounding. For nostalgia alone, it was thrilling. But her concert, which ran about 60 minutes, never really took off. Granted, it could have been an off night, and she did tell us late in the set that she had broken an ankle playing with her grandkids, but there was no patter, no storytelling, she went up on her lyrics three times, and some of the selections weren’t very exciting.

Look, I know she’s 74, and she sounds quite good for her age, but the show could have been designed to not have her front and center so much (at one point, the uncredited choir joined her downstage). Instead she walked back and forth a few times in high-heeled platform sandals (broken ankle?), wearing the most colorful, audacious gowns I’ve seen in a long time. (With four giant sparkling silver chandeliers, an indescribable sparkling ruffled orange gown with train, a shimmering purple and black crinoline crepe mermaid gown, and a Las Vegas showgirl strapless blue gown, it looked like the The Ed Sullivan Show on steroids.)

The crowd was engaged for the oldies (“You Can’t Hurry Love,” “More Today Than Yesterday”) as she flipped her big wonderful hair, singing and saying “It’s My Turn… And Yours!” And while it was wonderful to hear songs associated with her career that she doesn’t pull out often, less successful were standards (“The Man I Love”) and show tunes (“Home” from The Wiz).

In an overture of her greatest hits, the HBO kept clear of that cloying Pops sound, and gave us driving, soulful interpretations. When she walked off stage for a costume change, the HBO played something that sounded like jazzy spy music (Quincy Jones? Alex North?), but it was really incongruous to the proceedings. Later, the instrumentalists sounded swell with Ms. Ross bringing new depths to the traditional “Amazing Grace” and — holding the show’s titular promise of singing memories — the boogie-woogie disco number “Upside Down.” But the mix of orchestra and the lead singer of the 1960s group The Supremes could be off, a few times in arrangements but mostly with technical glitches; she had her band mixed in and I think that was a problem. At first, there was a thrum so loud that it drowned out some singing from the fantastic back-up vocalists and that awesome choir, then there was feedback, and on more than one occasion, Ms. Ross signaled and finally said to the sound board that she was having trouble with balance.

Yet it was impossible to leave in a sour mood: She did a medley of a wistful “Do You Know” mixed with the glorious “Ain’t No Mountain” that led to a wonderfully dazzling fireworks show synchronized to the music. (I suppose she stood center stage for the fireworks because she was cued too early.) For her encore, Ross had a community of music lovers “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” so even though the evening wasn’t astonishing, we left in a good mood.

photos by Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging, courtesy of LA Phil

Diana Ross Sings Memories with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra
played Saturday June 16, 2018
for more info, visit Hollywood Bowl

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