Written by: Michael Roman
Friday night in Hollywood, a crowd of almost 20,000 trained their ears away from the bustling 101 Freeway down the hill and towards the L.A. Symphony, who took cues from their maestro, the legendary conductor Gustavo Dudamel, on when to lend support to the feature act: a man from Astoria Queens with a twinkle in his eyes and a penchant for leaving vital organs in the Bay Area, Anthony Benedetto.
You might know him by his stage name, Tony Bennett.
Once the Argentinian-born conductor led the multi-cultural orchestra in a rousing “Star Spangled Banner,” the symphony kicked off the night with a little Verdi. A taste of Italy soon segued to silver screen classics by Mancini featuring a rendition of “Moon River” that made even the ghost of Holly Golightly swoon.
After a brief intermission, PBS’ own Tavis Smiley appeared at center stage to introduce the incomparable Tony Bennett. 55 years to the day he first appeared on the Bowl’s stage, the 90-year-old juggernaut literally jogged to his mark, receiving what would be the first of many standing ovations. From that moment on, the smile never left the musicians’ face and the audience never left the palm of his hand.
While his voice may have thinned in his 6-and-a-half decade career, Bennett can still hit the high notes when he wants to, giving chills on even the balmiest of nights. With a setlist ranging from “Rags to Riches,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” to “Cold, Cold Heart,” “But Beautiful” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” it became abundantly clear that Bennett’s deftness of phrasing is second to none. When the nonagenarian sees fit, he whispers haunting prose the way Berlin, Arlen and Gershwin intended them to be sung.
His styling, beats and intensity continue to breathe new life into songs that have sat high atop the Mt. Olympus of the great American Songbook for generations.
Bucket lists were checked when the Grammy winner sang his beloved “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”; tears fell freely when he passionately asked the accompanying symphony “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” and skin was pinched when he held a drinking glass to his piano player and teased “One More For The Road.”
Song after song, Bennet made the music both dreamy and sad, much like the night itself. For everyone gathered, it was a dream come true to witness the icons’ commanding presence, yet sad to think this could be the last time we see him do it. A recent illness sidelined the performer, leaving many to ask “Is this the end?” When he rebounded and rescheduled missed performances, fans the world over breathed a collective sigh of relief.
So many songs, so many stories, so many years, will never let this American classic go quietly into the night.
When the house lights came up an hour and fifteen minutes later, Mr. Bennett marveled at those gathered to worship at the feet of the last remaining “O.G.”, wrapping his arms around himself as if to say “I feel the love.” As he made his way stage left, Angelenos’ cheers turned to roars, beckoning Bennett to appear for not one, but two curtain calls.
Forever the showmen, Bennett and Dudamel both left the crowd wanting more, and they outpaced the spotlight trained on them as they walked side by side into the night.