The predominant motif Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall was the color blue — from the title of the program, “Rhapsody in Blue,” to the shower of blue and silver strips of mylar that fell upon the audience at the close. It was opening night again for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and for this one, the Phil brought its music director, Gustavo Dudamel, and its creative chair for jazz, Herbie Hancock, together for an all-Gershwin blowout.
For a conductor who has such strong feeling for rhythm and a jazz pianist whose curiosity takes him all over the musical spectrum, it would be hard to find a more convenient intersection for their interests than Gershwin, and the gala audience vociferously agreed.
For Hancock, this was the kickoff of his latest tour — incredibly, his first as a solo pianist; he will play Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” again with orchestras in Portland, Seattle and Calgary after a series of solo piano recitals elsewhere. For Dudamel, this was his third gala benefit since becoming music director, and the hoopla surrounding him has yet to fade, for again, video cameras were capturing the concert for a future international broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances” series.
This wasn’t Hancock’s first shot at “Rhapsody in Blue”: He and classical pianist Lang Lang went on an improvisatory spree with it at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009. But this time, Hancock stuck to the printed score in front of him — well, sort of, for he teased the timing of the phrases with elastic freedom, seeing how far he could stretch the fabric. Dudamel was only too happy to follow Hancock’s every fluctuation, and some of their antics drew chuckles from the audience.
“Rhapsody in Blue” is played so often (and often, so stodgily) these days that the Hancock-Dudamel treatment came as a needed, irreverent splash in the face. It’s not an interpretation you would want to hear all the time, but it will probably be completely different each time Hancock plays it on the road anyway.
Alone, in a preview of his solo concerts, Hancock ruminated through some highly personalized, subdued, delicately urbane improvisations on “Embraceable You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
On his own, Dudamel found a great vehicle for his particular blend of Latin temperament and rhythmic pizzazz in Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” — everyone blasting away, not always neatly, in a riotous, furiously paced rhumba hothouse in which the distinct clave rhythm just managed to make itself felt. “An American in Paris” not only swung when it had to, it jumped, especially the brief, ecstatic, simulated big-band jam session near the close in which Gustavo had them cut loose and blow. Dudamel is one of only a few who can, or dares to, kick up a ruckus with this piece.