LOS ANGELES, CA- With the Los Angeles Philharmonic ensconced back at Disney Hall for the season, their performances veered back from “art for the masses” to more serious pursuits. As part of their LA Fest series and their centennial celebration, the orchestra is mixing performances by well-known local musicians with commissions by lesser-known composers. While in theory I love their embrace of the community and new art, it in practice leads to some very eccentric combinations. Case in point: Moby backed by the Philharmonic, featuring a gospel choir and preceded by two short compositions by people I’d never heard of before. And the evening only grew more unexpected as it went on.

The night opened with new works by Gabriela Ortiz and then Julia Adolphe. The Ortiz piece was a slightly jazzy, uptempo number. It had the feeling of a wacky movie action sequence and featured as much of a marching band flair as you can produce with a cello. I couldn’t really figure out what was going on with that composition, but I liked it.

From my angle, I could also observe conductor Gustavo Dudamel in a way I never have been able to do so before. At the Hollywood Bowl, I couldn’t see his hands clearly and am frankly often distracted by his iconic hair. Here, I watched from above and on the side and could observe the beauty of his conducting. He was dressed a bit like a very fashionable dentist in a black smock, but I could barely take my eyes off of his hands. It was incredible to see the delicacy of his movements during slower sequences — flowing with the grace of a ballet dancer before shifting sharply to more aggressive passages.

The second piece was somber and dreamy mood music. Returning to a soundtrack theme, it seemed like it would accompany a hero’s long journey home. I found myself floating away and spacing out during Adolphe’s composition, which was pleasant but forgettable overall.

The first half of the performance ended with “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters,” a song by Moby that did not feature the artist himself. It gave me chills from the first notes. While the pop-musician-with-orchestra trope may be somewhat of a cliche, it really worked in this case because of his ambient sound. The piano, organ, and harp in particular sang.

Moby @ Walt Disney Concert Hall 10/12/18. Setlist.
Moby @ Walt Disney Concert Hall 10/12/18. Setlist.

Moby himself took the stage for the second half the evening and after a long pause following the dimming of the lights. He opened the number on acoustic guitar but was quickly overpowered by the orchestra when they joined in. Other songs, fortunately, had a better balance as he transitioned to other instruments.

Throughout the evening, different configurations of musicians joined him — the orchestra, his band, his back-up singers, and the impressive Jason White Singers. The music flowed nicely from piece to piece, but it was somewhat distracting to have the choir repeatedly marching in and out. From that point of view, it would have been better to group their songs together. Even Moby commented on the various comings and goings, saying late in the show that “I have attachment issues: when you leave, I feel bereft.” The mixture of different performing groups also led to an unexpected and soft moment: the sight of conductor Dudamel sitting quietly and patiently on a piano bench as he waited for the end of a piece that did not feature the philharmonic.

Many of the songs were slowed-down versions of Moby’s greatest hits, such as “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?,” “Porcelain,” and “Natural Blues.” These renditions emphasized the sad lyrics and aching feel of his music. At the same time, there was more hooting and hollering throughout the evening than I’d ever anticipated hearing at Disney Hall — though that may be partly because the audience was decades younger than what I normally see at this venue.

In the spring, I’d had the pleasure of seeing Moby perform at Apogee Studios for KCRW, and I was struck by how unexpectedly funny and personable Moby was in the intimate venue. This performance was much different. There was a joke about how the thunder from a sudden storm made him think the percussion was off the beat, but it somehow came off less like a commentary about the unusual Los Angeles rain and more like a swipe at the musicians.

Later, there was a particularly uncomfortable moment after he asked for requests, then said he couldn’t hear them because of his deafness because he’s “like Mr. Magoo.” When an audience member responded by shouting a suggestion, Moby cracked, “Thanks for yelling in the Disney Concert Hall — I don’t come to McDonalds and yell when you’re working.” There was an audible collective gasp from the audience. That kind of dig wasn’t a good look and also made no sense in this context.

A more positive note came when he performed a piece he said had been one of his deceased mother’s favorite songs and dedicated it to her, “wherever she may be in the afterlife.” Crosby, Stills and Nash’ “Helpless,” performed with the choir, showcased their rich and deep sound. The powerful chorus beautifully balanced with the orchestra, especially during the high-volume segments during which you could feel their full force. It was also interesting throughout the performance to watch the choir leader, who was placed not on the crowded stage but in a pool of light on the stairs in the audience.

The extreme dynamic shift and transition from delicate and quiet to LOUD AND POWERFUL was particularly pronounced on “We are All Made of Stars.” The evening then closed with the single weirdest on-stage collaboration I’ve ever seen: Moby and the LA Phil with a gospel choir and featuring… the mayor. Yes, the actual mayor. Not the mayor of funk or anything like that but rather the real-life mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, on piano for “Natural Blues.” My only prior exposure to Garcetti’s musical abilities was via the infamous/hilarious “101 Slow Jam” traffic advisory video, but it turns out he’s also a jazz pianist. Who knew? It was a very unusual collaboration — even more so than the entire evening already had been — but I suppose it all made sense in the context of a celebration of the city and the LA Phil at 100.

As is typical of so many performances here, the evening ended with a standing ovation. Going into the show, I had honestly not expected to like it. So much of what makes a Moby performance come to life is the wild, pulsing, colorful lighting throbbing with the electronic beats. Minus the color and visual stimulation, I feared that something integral to the experience would be lost. And yet, for the most part, the merger of singer, band, choir, and orchestra seemed to work. I’m looking forward to seeing what other strange bedfellows this season will produce.

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Moby. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Used with permission.
Moby. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Used with permission.