Sergei Prokofiev composed his masterpiece ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1935. The LA Phil (founded in 1919) was already an established American orchestra at that time, but for the next 83 years it never performed the ballet in its entirety. At least not until this past weekend when LA Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel programmed it.
There is much to say about the concert. First, the music. Prokofiev’s score is very long, running about two and half hours. On Sunday, Dudamel didn’t walk onto the stage until 2:10 p.m., and the intermission didn’t start until almost 3:50, close to the time when a normal concert would be concluding.
Prokofiev’s music is exquisite and exquisitely scored for large orchestra (with an added tenor saxophone) with a full complement of percussion instruments, organ and mandolins. Most people are only familiar with the orchestral suites, as well as 10 piano pieces, all condensed from the lengthy score by Prokofiev and that contain the many recognizable melodies without sacrificing the overall effect of the dramatic music. And although the score was originally written for ballet, it is rarely performed that way.
Which brings us to this past Sunday’s performance. Instead of performing Romeo and Juliet solely as an orchestral piece or solely as a ballet, Dudamel opted to experiment with something in between. Selected scenes from the ballet were accompanied by a variety of dancers led by director and choreographer Benjamin Millepied of the LA Dance Project. The dancers sometimes danced on stage in front of the orchestra and at times left the stage to dance in various locations throughout Disney Hall, including outside on the rooftop garden, filmed by Millipied with a video camera. The video was projected live on a screen above the orchestra.
The choreography was innovative, and the dancers were terrific. The musicians, including Dudamel, must have been exhausted from three performances of the ballet on the three days prior to Sunday, but they didn’t show it. Their playing was fresh and exciting with powerful solos from the principals.
However, at least for this reviewer, the production missed its mark. It was impressive mostly because of Prokofiev’s rich and dramatic music and orchestration, the incredible playing by the musicians, and the fusion of live action on and off stage. But the concert was too long. The first half lasted more than one and a half hours. Several people got up and left before intermission, presumably to go to the bathroom. I can sit through a long program, being a huge Bruckner and Mahler fan, but after sitting through the entire score, I understood why Prokofiev created orchestral suites with selected scenes.
Moreover, the dancing distracted from the music, which for some, might have been a good thing given the long duration of the concert. And while the transition from stage to screen was innovative, it created even more distraction, compounded by the fact that only selected scenes were chosen for the dance.
Finally, for each of the four performances Thursday through Sunday, Millipied (famous for his work in the 2010 film Black Swan) had different pairs of dancers (e.g., male-female, female-female, and male-male) play the roles of Romeo and Juliet. For Sunday’s performance, Romeo and Juliet were two males. At least for this reviewer, that was problematic because Shakespeare and Prokofiev didn’t write Romeo and Romeo or Juliet and Juliet.
Nevertheless, Dudamel’s programming of the complete ballet with the accompanying dance scenes shows why the LA Phil remains the most successful orchestra in the United States, combining creative programming with a world-class orchestra playing in the acoustically rich Walt Disney Concert Hall.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
For upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.