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Blame It on Rio concert at Hollywood Bowl

September 15, 2009|Reed Johnson

Two sides of Brazilian musical culture sashayed onto the Hollywood Bowl stage last weekend. One was the Brazil of sequined Carnival girls and buff capoeira dancers performing balletic martial arts maneuvers. That's the touristic-Platonic ideal of Brazil, the Carmen Miranda fantasy of mile-long urban beaches and indolent evenings. It was swooningly evoked by the Bowl's "Blame It on Rio" theme and irresistibly served by conductor Thomas Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

Together, they performed the inevitable Antonio Carlos Jobim medley along with such crowd-pleasing numbers as Ary Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil," the theme from "Somewhere in Time" (evidently a favorite among Brazilian cinephiles) and Matthew Naughtin's folkloric "Amazon Journey," with its opening brace of anthropomorphic woodwinds mimicking the fauna of the river jungle.

That side of the Bowl's three-night program, which wrapped up Sunday, was ornamented by a dazzling fireworks show and a lighting design that decked out the Bowl's iconic arches in sizzling oranges, reds and yellows.

But beyond these picturesque postcard visions lies another Brazil, where dangerous musical experimentation takes place and a certain kind of willful eccentricity is highly prized both as an artistic approach and, at times, as a survival strategy.

That Brazil was on display a couple weeks ago in Echo Park, where a reconstituted version of the '60s psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes performed a memorable set of paisley pop-rock filled with the sort of cagily euphemistic lyrics that the act used to slip past Brazil's clueless censors during the dark years of dictatorship.

At the Bowl, the spirit of radical invention that gave rise to Os Mutantes and the Tropicalia movement was represented by Seu Jorge, who came to North American attention by appearing in Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," and through his ingenious samba-fied renditions of David Bowie songs.

That's like cross-breeding one hothouse hybrid (Bowie) with another, and the results were stunning, both for the lithe beauty and lucid phrasing of Jorge's singing and for the startling effect of hearing the familiar transformed into the gorgeously alien.

Jorge embodies a national musical culture that always has been less concerned with the pedigree of an influence than with bending that influence to fresh purposes. At the Bowl, his exquisitely plaintive rendition of "Life on Mars" was as quietly humane a moment as you'll likely ever experience at a summer pops concert.

He and his small, super-tight band received excellent backing from Wilkins and his orchestral colleagues, particularly in the brass section, on his set-opening "Carolina."

The evening's other off-beat presence was Carlinhos Brown, the dreadlocked Bahian musician-producer who recently collaborated with the Bowl's other weekend headliner, the ever-elegant New York-born Brazilian chanteuse Bebel Gilberto. Brown turned up on "Aganju," halfway through Gilberto's too brief four-song set, and set to tapping out rhythms on whatever was at hand.

His enthusiasm was contagious, and a little too vigorous: He succeeded in shattering some sort of glass or plastic container that he was using as a percussion instrument, obliging him and Gilberto to spend the next few minutes picking up debris with their hands or nudging it under the piano with their feet.

Throughout, somehow, Gilberto kept singing with aplomb. But then, that's what you'd expect from South American musical royalty; she's the daughter of bossa nova guitar legend Joao Gilberto and the daughter of singer Miucha. Attired all in white, she was a bewitching figure, caressing each note of "Tanto Tempo" and "Cada Beijo."

"There is something about Brazil that will leave you with this indescribable feeling of longing," Wilkins told his audience. The Portuguese word is saudade, and Wilkins was right. With the night air filled with drifting fireworks smoke and a faint autumnal chill, another Bowl season was (sigh) winding down.


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