“Her voice — it’s just like butter,” said a patron of the Hollywood Bowl Friday night, using the familiar “SNL”-derived description of Barbra Streisand’s voice and applying it to the weekend’s headliner, Christina Aguilera. Not to critique the critiques of esteemed season ticket-holders, but this comparison seemed exactly wrong. Aguilera’s voice is not like butter; if anything, it’s like bourbon. Or maybe a nice steak… a petite one, sure. She has her stratospheric registers and isn’t afraid to employ them, but the bigger part of the appeal of her voice is how full-throatedly low into her gut she can go while still staying at top volume. It’s an approach that could easily bowl over a Hollywood Bowl, or any orchestra therein. So, extra kudos to whoever was responsible for the mix at this weekend’s shows. When you put a singer as big as Aguilera in front of the L.A. Philharmonic and Aguilera doesn’t “win,” it’s a mission accomplished.
Of all the concerts we’ve seen at the Bowl over the years that matched a pop singer with either the L.A. Phil or the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and it’s more than a few, this was one of the better ones, as far as letting the singer do something that’s in line with what brought her to the dance but has value-added elements that don’t neglect the fact that she’s actually at a high-society ball. It was partly of a piece with her run of shows in Las Vegas (so rudely interrupted by the pandemic 16 months ago), complete with dancers, and partly a Boston Pops night out that happened to include a cracking funk band, and any splitting of the difference wasn’t too bothersome. Sure, there were some of those awkward moments when it was just Aguilera’s touring band playing for an entire number, where, as always with these things, you imagine the thought bubbles over Phil members’ heads as they wonder if they really put in all that time at Juilliard just so they could sit on their hands while 10 dancers strut their stuff. But it’s a nice compromise that some of Aguilera’s loudest songs — like “Lady Marmalade” — get to be played at their loudest volume, without trying to figure out how to fit an oboe in, while a majority of the setlist really did make space for exquisitely written and actually audible orchestral arrangements.
At the beginning of her 100-minute set, it wasn’t exactly clear if this might be even a more self-consciously classed-up show than it turned out to be. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Phil had taken the first hour of the show for themselves, ending with a reading of Marquez’s “Danzon No. 8” that was such a sublime match of music of maestro on a warm evening, a second half could’ve seemed superfluous, “Dirrty” fan or no. When the full company returned after intermission, the set was adorned with a very large iceberg, which made it seem we’d maybe accidentally wandered into a Celine Dion show instead. Guesses that there might be a ladder behind that iceberg were borne out when Aguilera appeared at the top of it, crooning Harry Warren’s “At Last,” which could have set up expectations for a real “pops” versus pop show. But that wasn’t a giveaway to too altered a course: “At Last” — which came to Aguilera via Etta James — is something Aguilera has sung in her show half as many times as she’s ever sung “Genie in a Bottle.” And from that ladder descent forward, it was off to the contemporary R&B banger and pop power-ballad races.
“This is the moment of a lifetime,” Aguilera gushed early on, “because my mother was a violinist, and she traveled with the youth symphony orchestra when she was 15, 16 years old, so I remember all these images of her playing the violin every night in our living room and just being around classical music my whole life.” The singer ran down a list of influences, being “originally of course inspired by the great Rodgers and Hammerstein, and ‘The Sound of Music’ being the first thing that ever spoke to me musically. And I wanted to be Julie Andrews on the hills, tonight is that moment for me!” She then started name-checking the collaborations of Danny Elfman with Tim Burton and work of composers Philip Glass and Nicholas Britell as factoring into what was about to transpire, which maybe really set up different expectations than what was delivered (sadly, Aguilera did not cover either “So Long, Farewell” or the theme from “Koyaanisqatsi”), but the desire to lay out that she’s not a dilettante coming into this world is understandable.
Were there costume changes? Yes, many costume changes, but not keep-Dudamel-waiting-for-five-minutes costume changes. When Aguilera would disappear and then reappear while the Phil played interludes (or, in one case, her band vamped on “What a Girl Wants”), the singer would come back with a new and improved level of accessorizing, whether that involved an elaborate feather boa or a neckpiece that Audrey Hepburn would have died to wear in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The pile of hair atop her head remained the same, looking like a spectacular piece of light-oak origami, as did the painted-on black bodysuit, which would have been impossible to unpaint during a vamp. Aguilera has truly mastered how to create a new look in 20 bars or less: Diamonds, or something that looks like them, are a girl’s best friend when it comes to an insta-reinvention, not a succession of Bob Mackie knockoffs.
An easy joke to make, seeing her step out with the Phil, was that we definitely would not be hearing “DIrrty” tonight. Except we did hear “Dirrty” tonight, and it sounded great with the Phil adding some nicely conceived bonus dramatic tension — just as good as it did when they added a more predictable tenor to the closing “Beautiful.” And for all the hands-off approach that was employed when the orchestra remained silent for five of the 14 selections, they did find a way to make “Ain’t No Other Man” not noticeably more funkless with the addition of around a hundred players. It was a tidy match, in the end: the L.A. Philharmonic brought the brass horns, and Christina Aguilera brought the brass balls.
The set list:
At Last/JB Intro/Ain’t No Other Man
Genie in a Bottle
The Voice Within
Peaches/Can’t Hold Us Down (orchestra tacet)
Twice (orchestra tacet)
Xpress/Lady Marmalade (orchestra tacet)
Contigo (orchestra tacet)
What a Girl Wants (orchestra tacet)
It’s a Man’s World
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