Music Review: BERNSTEIN AND WOOTEN (LA Phil; Thomas Wilkins, conductor; Victor Wooten, bass)

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by Nick McCall on March 24, 2024

in Concerts / Events,Music,Theater-Los Angeles


The idea behind this past weekend’s program at the Los Angeles Philharmonic was the influence of jazz on the orchestra, featuring three pieces that cover a span of nearly 125 years. For these two performances, the Phil brought in Thomas Wilkins, Principal Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, to conduct.

First up was Ballade in A Minor, Op. 33 (1898), by 23-year-old Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, his first commission. It begins with some delicious bombast that recalls Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, but lighter. Then it makes a romantic, heart-tugging turn that all admirers of Carl Davis’s work on silent film would be wise to check out. It’s a beguiling piece that doesn’t let go. It was my favorite piece on the program and I would love to see the Phil do more Coleridge-Taylor in the future.

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1960) was next. Written three years after the musical’s premiere, it is a suite that includes bits of some of the best parts of the score, but jumbled up and interspersed with some filler. The performance lacked swing and jagged knife stabs; it felt a little too square. The orchestra’s flamboyant mass finger-snapping, as it should, elicited laughter from the audience. With wildly crackling cymbals and an astounding percussion section with high-frequency energy, the orchestra began to come to life during “Mambo,” but I could barely hear the brass section. However, Dan Fornero thrillingly squealed the hell out of the trumpet solo. “Cool,” the seventh of nine movements, was raucous but still felt smoothed over. The 1961 movie always leaves me in tears. Symphonic Dances did not, but I guess that’s to be expected when the concluding version of “Somewhere” is placed near the beginning.

New music at the Phil, even when I like it, is often such a deadly serious affair. With this in mind, Victor Wooten’s La Lección Tres (2021), filled with humor and joy, is refreshing. It is a concerto in three movements, without breaks, for electric-bass guitar and orchestra, with Wooten playing his Fodera “yinyang” bass and Fodera bow bass (an electric guitar played with a bow). Musically, it was a bit of a grab bag, where a slide whistle can swoop in out of nowhere and a harp can compete with the electric bass. Call-and-response was a common theme; the strings often repeated Wooten’s guitar. The orchestration was dense, but too often it overpowered Wooten, to the point that I sometimes forgot he was still playing. Taking turns is fine, but when Wooten moved to the background, the orchestra still sounded like accompaniment. There was no through-line and the orchestra part had too many distractions to allow me to concentrate on Wooten.

However, when he allowed himself to be the focus, Wooten was an enchanting performer. In the middle of the piece, he had an extended cadenza on the regular electric bass. He started slowly, then worked up to intense and furious strumming. When he reached a frenzy, he suddenly and seamlessly played air guitar, visibly delighted in pulling a fast one on us. Wooten followed this up with a humorous call-and-response with the bass section, where he forced the players to play like him. This hopeful and optimistic piece ended with a soaring climax.

Long-time fans of Twin Peaks waited years to see what was cut from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). David Lynch finally edited those deleted scenes into a 91-minute feature in 2014. When I first saw it, The Missing Pieces seemed to tiptoe and hint at another movie. Such was Wooten’s La Lección Tres: lots of interesting parts, but the core plot was conspicuously missing.

photos by Farah Sosa​​​ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall,
provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Wilt March 24, 2024 at 11:29 pm

Tom Hooten did not play this program. The solo in Mambo was played by Dan Fornero.


Tony Frankel March 25, 2024 at 6:07 pm

Thanks, Jim! We have corrected that.


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