For over a hundred years, the Hollywood Bowl has been a mecca of arts and entertainment in Los Angeles. Proudly evolving through years of renovations and technological developments, the Bowl has been at the heart of live gatherings in this city for several lifetimes, which is what made its unexpected dormancy in 2020 hit particularly hard for music lovers. Particularly for the season ticket holders, who faithfully attend the LA Philharmonic performances, the chance to get out and about for an evening is also about being part of a community who equally value local artists of all levels. Which is why heading to the Bowl was a return to form for plenty of attendees this past weekend, and not just to see the orchestra, or a fledgling artist on the rise, but to watch a full-on pop star, Christina Aguilera, grace the stage in all her glory.
But this was not a seductive pop show by any means. Backup dancers did flank Aguilera from time to time throughout the fifteen song set, and she brought a level of pomp to the stage that only a global icon can, but the emphasis on her connection with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his orchestra was the continual focus. Well, that, and her flawless, unshakeable voice, as she is easily one of the best vocalists of our era, no matter what style of production she’s singing over. Catering to a crowd of loyal LA arts supporters, and a cadre of fans who grew up on her music, but aren’t necessarily young themselves (anymore), Christina was a poised veteran claiming the spotlight that’s rightfully hers.
Clad in a black pantsuit with full-length sleeves and shoulder pads, Xtina – as fans have lovingly dubbed her, to the point that it’s her username on social media — dressed the modest outfit up and down with diamond collars, feather boas, and at one point, a black tulle skirt so enormous it took four or five helpers to lift and carry it when she needed to move. Her versatile yet subdued aesthetic was something of a foil for the song selection, which spanned plenty of her hits, reimagined as many were for the orchestral accompaniment, but dipped into deeper cuts, too.
At 40, plenty of pop stars from her generation have burned out and faded away, unable or unwilling to draw arena-sized crowds for not one but two nights in a row. Her answer, at least this weekend, is to pivot to a more refined take on her early hits and massive singles, shaping and slowing them into sweeping tunes that better suited an orchestra. Though, it didn’t take a lot of tinkering, since Aguilera has always favored emotional balladry throughout her discography. Kicking off the night with the timeless jazz standard “At Last,” leading into her own “Ain’t No Other Man,” she headed directly into one of her best-known hits “Genie In A Bottle,” where the orchestra’s presence was particularly felt.
Changing up the tempo for “Can’t Hold Us Down,” perhaps to inject a bit of speed into a slower night, and joined by the single guest of the night, Ian Axel of A Great Big World for their 2013 collaboration “Say Something,” the show was mostly pure Xtina. She alluded to the impact musicals and composers have always had on her style, citing her mother’s love for playing the violin, alongside The Sound Of Music, Danny Elfman, and Tim Burton as early influences. Throwing in another classic cover that she’s more than made her own, “It’s A Man’s World,” (complete with feather boa), other obvious standouts were her massive, defining hits like “Dirrty” and “Fighter,” which both benefited from the orchestra instead of being bogged down by it.
On five songs the orchestra stayed silent, letting Aguilera and her dancers dominate the vibe on an excellent mashup of “Xpress” and “Lady Marmalade” – which might’ve been the most boisterous moment of the night — as well as the late set crowd-pleaser, “What A Girl Wants,” which was also reimagined, with a reggaeton beat instead, something that probably wouldn’t have worked for mainstream pop back in 2002, but feels seamless now. She had to close out the set with “Beautiful,” as we all knew, which was perhaps the best fusion of the two musical worlds throughout the whole set, summing up exactly why she was a good choice for the challenge of marrying pop appeal and orchestral gravitas.
And, instead of leaving early as the older crowds are sometimes apt to do, nearly all the box-holders and LA Phil loyalists stayed in their seats until the very last note. Now that we’ve experienced the world without the Bowl, an extra half hour is worth its weight in gold — and the wait in the parking lot.
“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)
“Say Something” (Feat. A Great Big World’s Ian Axel)
“Xpress/Lady Marmalade” (orchestra tacet)
“Contigo” (orchestra tacet)
“What A Girl Wants” (orchestra tacet)
“It’s A Man’s World”