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LA Phil tuning up the programs they are taking on tour (part 2 of 3): Dudamel swings for the fences with “La mer” & “Firebird”

Gustavo Dudamel (photo by Andrew Eccles)

“I think that Debussy is, perhaps,  the most important composer of this century.  I also happen to think that today, the future of classical music has a lot to do with Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and less to do with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

The relationship between Debussy and Stravinsky is particularly interesting.  First of all, young Stravinsky was very much influenced by Debussy’s music, but also Debussy was one of the few people who understood what Stravinsky was trying to do . . . and the relationship between these two men was one of the most interesting chapters in music of this century.”

— Esa-Pekka Salonen, In Rehearsal (DVD), 1997

Back at the beginning of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2012/2013 season, Gustavo Dudamel conducted the world premiere of Symphony by Steven Stucky and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, taking direct aim at repertoire that have been veritably owned by his predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.  For this past weekend’s concerts, he doubled down with another concert of two more of Mr. Salonen’s calling cards, Debussy’s La mer and The Firebird by Stravinsky.

The natural inclination to juxtapose the two conductors in this repertoire is particularly strong:

  • First, Mr. Dudamel is choosing to conduct La mer in his fourth season as Music Director, the same point in Mr. Salonen’s tenure that he decided to record it for Sony, thereby allowing listeners to directly compare their interpretations after each have had roughly the same amount of time to lead the orchestra.
  • Second, Mr. Salonen and the LA Phil happened to perform and record both La mer and The Firebird for DG near the end of his tenure with the orchestra.  This makes it easy to compare interpretations that are separated by just a few years.

Mr. Dudamel’s versions of these works invite particular scrutiny because he and the LA Phil will be performing them on their upcoming trip to Europe and New York.  Given that the rest of the music to be done on tour is much newer, these early 20th century classics will undoubtably be the most well-known works those audiences will hear.  For all intents and purposes, they will serve as the yard-stick against which both orchestra and conductor will be measured while on the road — all the contemporary works could be hits, but if the Debussy and the Stravinsky miss the mark with out-of-town audiences and journalists, it would be disappointing to say the very least.

I had the good fortune to be able to attend two performances of this program, just as I had done with the season opener.  I am happy to say that both concerts this weekend were very good.  Yet while I’d describe those dazzling season-opening concerts as home runs — perhaps even grand slams — this past weekend’s concerts were doubles to the gap that could have been legged-out for triples but weren’t:   welcome accomplishments in any case, but the latest pair felt like an opportunity not fully realized.

The big issue — really, the only major issue, but it’s a doozy — was the relatively slow tempi that Mr. Dudamel took in both works.  Phrases that lended themselves to being stretched were taken even slower than other conductors typically take them; in and of itself, this may have worked, but Mr. Dudamel wasn’t able to maintain enough dramatic tension in those moments.

As a result, both works often felt sluggish.   The second and third movements of La Mer felt more organic the second time around, but on both Thursday and Sunday, the first movement dragged noticeably (the timings on Sunday compared to other recorded versions bear that out).  The Firebird suffered from much of the same on both days, and because of the full ballet score’s meandering nature, was more noticeable.   It’s as if Mr. Dudamel was holding back the natural flow of his musicians to make a musical point that never quite coalesced —  especially on Thursday.

The curtain raiser, Vivier’s Zipangu, didn’t really add much to the proceedings.  A short piece for small string ensemble, it calls for the use of no vibrato and different bowing pressures, creating an astringent sound.  The result was often appealingly mysterious, though could also sound like nails on a chalkboard set to melody.   It certainly provided a contrast to the lushness of the two other works on the program, but I longed for something that would have clashed less.

Having said all that, these were still very enjoyable performances of the Debussy and Stravinsky works, thanks mainly to the absolutely superb playing by the orchestra.  The richness of their tone, the ability of pairs or groups of instruments to blend into unique timbres, the responsiveness to Mr. Dudamel’s changes in dynamics and tempi — all were spectacular.  Each section shined, and marvelous solo contributions were too numerous to allow me to make mention of any individual player.  The Firebird was a sonic wonderland, plush and chewy and poignant and snarling and, in the end, completely radiant.

Moreover, both Mr. Salonen and Mr. Dudamel manage to use all 64 crayons in the box when creating the soundscape for these most colorful of orchestral works, yet they certainly favor different shades in the process, especially in La mer.  Mr. Salonen tended to draw out woodwinds; in the DVD from which the quote at the top is drawn, he would make a specific point of highlighting a unique lick in the 2nd clarinet or of asking the flutes to make a triplet phrase extra noticeable, even delaying a brass crescendo to ensure that it was heard.  Mr. Dudamel, on the other hand, favors the brass, eliciting a gutsy sound out of them one moment and an edgy sound the next.  He chose to include the brass inserts in the third movement whereas Mr. Salonen always left them out.  Plus, I’d never heard the trombones so prominent in anybody’s interpretation of La mer ever before this past weekend, and it worked.

There were some noteworthy differences between the two days.   As one might expect, Sunday’s fourth performance was more confident and settled-in than Thursday’s opener.  La mer particularly felt more alive on Sunday, whereas Thursday’s rendition was much more subdued.

In the end, these were very good performances, though I walked away with the feeling that they could have been monster concerts if not for my reservations about Mr. Dudamel’s choice of pacing in the two major works and his selection of an odd curiosity to put in front of them.  We’ll see how the folks in other cities react.

Random other thoughts:

  • guy eshedRobert deMaine, the incoming Principal Cello, played as guest principal during the first three concerts; however, a prior commitment to perform in Miami with the Ehnes Quartet forced him miss Sunday’s performance.  Tao Ni sat first chair for the final concert.
  • Israeli musician Guy Eshed, Principal Flute of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Italy under Zubin Mehta, was the guest principal flute for these concerts.  He is the second European to be given a trial week with the LA Phil with the possibility of being named as the orchestra’s new full-time Principal Flute.  Though no official announcement has been made, I understand that he will also be playing as guest principal during the orchestra’s tour.  And while Sunday’s concert would not be his last with the orchestra, he received a very warm reception from the other woodwind players on stage after the concert, just as Julien Beaudiment had the week prior.
  • Speaking of guest principal flutes on trial with the orchestra:  it’s worth noting that the person playing first flute on Mr. Salonen’s 2008 recording of The Firebird for DG was Mathieu Dufour, playing a trial week before being offered the full-time Principal Flute chair by Mr. Salonen.  He didn’t actually join the orchestra until 2009, by which time Mr. Dudamel had taken over as Music Director; six months later, Mr. Dufour resigned his L.A. post and returned to the Chicago Symphony.   Oh, and as it happens, guest principal bassoon on that same recording was William Buchman, Mr. Dufour’s colleague at the CSO.


Los Angeles Philharmonic:  February 28, 2013 and March 3, 2013; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Vivier:  Zipangu
Debussy:  La mer
Stravinsky:  The Firebird


Photo credits:

  • Gustavo Dudamel:  photo by Andrew Eccles
  • Guy Eshed:

One thought on “LA Phil tuning up the programs they are taking on tour (part 2 of 3): Dudamel swings for the fences with “La mer” & “Firebird”

  1. The reviews are starting to come in from London. The Adams piece got a fairly harsh review in The Financial Times, while the Guardian gave four out of five stars to the La Mer and Firebird pairing (the reviewer didn’t care for Dude’s take on La Mer, which I agreed with, but also said the Firebird was “ravishing”). So it’s been a mixed bag.

    We’ll see how it goes in Paris and Lucerne.


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