Saturday, July 17, 2021 Review: Viola Davis and the L.A. Phil winningly connect ‘Peter and the Wolf’ to MLK

 Viola Davis narrates Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” on Thursday as Gustavo Dudamel leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

July 16, 2021

By Mark Swed

By all appearances the Hollywood Bowl is big-time back. The first official night of the Los Angeles Philharmonic summer season Thursday was, in nearly all respects, a typical first night of the L.A Phil Bowl season.

Gustavo Dudamel conducted. A large crowd attended. The orchestra no longer provides an audience count (it never could be believed, anyway), but I’d make it easily more than 10,000. There were no requirements for masks, distancing, vaccinations or tests. Picnicking was nearly ubiquitous.

The program was meant to please widely. Viola Davis splendidly narrated “Peter and the Wolf.” Stirring pieces by the neglected composer Margaret Bonds and the great Duke Ellington paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.


The main King tributes were excerpts from Bonds’ “Montgomery Variations.” Herself a pioneer, a Black composer from Chicago, she became a member of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s through her friendship with Langston Hughes, whose poems served her in song and oratorio. After Hughes’ death in 1967, she moved to L.A. where she remained for the rest of her life, becoming known mainly for her arrangements of spirituals.

Zubin Mehta led the premiere of her “Credo” for chorus and orchestra with the L.A. Phil shortly after her death at 59 in 1972. She was, though, quickly forgotten and is only now beginning to be rediscovered.

From the little evidence of her music yet available, her Hughes songs may be her most lasting legacy. (Soprano Julia Bullock will include Bonds in her Bowl repertory Sept. 2.) The four “Montgomery” variations Dudamel chose — “Decision,” “March,” “Dawn in Dixie” and “Benediction” — each, in its own way, brought a different glow to the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.” For Bonds, walking with MLK was walking with Jesus.

Dudamel followed that with the “Martin Luther King” movement from Ellington’s “Three Black Kings” suite. This had been on the last concert the L.A. Phil gave before the pandemic shutdown, as part of the orchestra’s Power to the People! festival. Ellington’s MLK doesn’t walk, he glides on air, a graceful ghost who lifts us up with him. Dudamel dedicated the performance to Guido Lamelli. The longtime L.A. Phil violinist died Tuesday.

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