Many years ago, in the late '50s, I was based at MGM Studios in Hollywood working on several Cinerama film projects when I met the legendary Spanish pianist/conductor José Iturbi. I was in awe of him, having grown up with memories of the several films in which he had appeared as himself conducting symphony orchestras. Especially a big movie called Anchors Aweigh in the mid-forties, which co-starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. One day in the commissary, I asked him why he had done that, and he surprised me with his answer. "It is important to let young people know that classical music is accessible and exciting." I have never forgotten that comment, which is equally appropriate today. So when Donelle Dadigan, co-founder and president of the José Iturbi Foundation, invited me to attend a Hollywood Bowl concert on Sunday, August 19th, I readily accepted and had one of the most profound and thrilling musical evenings of my life!
The Bowl concert was a once-in-a-lifetime event, with the brilliant young L.A. Philharmonic conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, conducting my operatic idol, Placido Domingo, the two working together for the first time. My Huffington readers will recall that I have ecstatically reviewed several Dudamel concerts at Walt Disney Hall, and I have been writing about Placido since he joined the L.A. Opera several years ago. On Sunday, they were joined by a soprano, Ana-Maria Martinez, who was the exciting surprise of the evening. I didn't know her work, and was bowled over by the depth and power of her voice, soloing and joining with Placido on several arias. I have been going to the Hollywood Bowl since first visiting L.A. in the early-Fifties, starting with a one-dollar seat at the very top and ending up in a garden box on Sunday. For a dozen years my then-wife and I had a box for classical Thursday concerts, keyboard side of course since my ex was a pianist. I have never seen the Bowl more packed than this concert, an event which obviously excited the interest of music lovers throughout the city. The roaring, applauding audience of more than 17,000 packed the venue and would not let Martinez and Domingo off the stage, and they obliged with several encores until the obligatory 10 p.m. performance limit went into effect.
At a special pre-concert dinner hosted by the José Iturbi Foundation, this remarkable woman, Dadigan, told me a little about Iturbi. "José and Marion were my godparents, so I was always involved with Marion and the foundation, which we co-founded after his death. You'll be interested in this: Jose Iturbi was the first musician to sell a million records! It was a recording of Chopin's Military Polonaise. To commemorate this milestone, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; it's in front of the El Capitan Theatre." She went on to tell me about the foundation, which is dedicated to "popularizing classical music...one note at a time," a cause which is also one of my passions. The Iturbi Foundation presents the world's largest international competition for piano and voice, every three years starting at UCLA in 2007, juried by renowned names in classical music. "We offer the largest prizes, $250,000 in total, to winners...and our activities bring some of the world's outstanding classical superstars and fresh talent to new audiences." Donelle is also the founder and president of The Hollywood Museum on Highland Ave. at Hollywood Blvd., which I had visited earlier that day to see the Marilyn Monroe exhibit, a fascinating collection of memorabilia. (My two signed Bert Stern photos of Marilyn are being remounted and will soon be exhibited in the lobby of L'Ermitage Hotel.)
I don't have a recollection of Iturbi appearing numerous times at the Hollywood Bowl, but Donelle told me that a half-century ago he was conducting concerts here and everywhere from the 1930s through the 1970s (often with his sister, Amparo, performing). They audience was treated to a video presentation of his Bowl appearances before the show and at intermission. The Foundation also provided a pre-show in the Bowl plaza with the performances of four promising opera singers. The Dudamel-Domingo concert benefitted the L.A. Phil's Musicians Pension Fund. It was a spectacular, thrilling concert with an exciting ending -- of course -- with Placido singing "Granada" and the whole audience joining in.
I'll end this tribute to José Iturbi with a quote of his which Donelle shared with me: "I feel that classical music should be a more recognizable part of everyone's entertainment. It has been my hope that through live concerts, motion pictures, recordings, international competitions, and interesting public forums, a larger group of people will learn to love classical music and attend live concert performances." Amen.
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