Gustavo Dudamel has been in charge of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a decade now, and so we should be able to easily answer the question: what can we — should we — expect from one of their concerts together?
And there’s the rub. There is no easy answer that doesn’t sound like a generic statement you could say about any music director of any orchestra after ten years. Passion? Sure. Excellent playing? Mostly yes. Greater rapport with his musicians? Yeah, okay.
But when you get beyond that, it’s tougher to say. David Mermelstein nailed it when he wrote earlier this year:
“And then there’s Mr. Dudamel, who despite his international name recognition and nearly 10 years on the podium at Disney Hall hasn’t quite put his stamp on this orchestra in the way that Messrs. Mehta and Salonen did in their day. To be sure, he has his moments—I can still recall, from prior seasons, a sublime Schubert Ninth Symphony and an equally good Schumann Fourth. Yet twice in February he disappointed when it really counted, first in the American premiere of Tan Dun’s overblown ‘Buddha Passion’ and then again when he rendered inert Mahler’s immensely moving Ninth Symphony. He still has years to equal his predecessors’ tenures—his contract runs through 2022 and may well be extended beyond that—but one can’t help wishing he had developed a sharper profile by now.” (“At 100, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is Forever Young,” The Wall Street Journal: April 17, 2019)
It’s not that Mr. Dudamel isn’t good, he usually is. It’s just that he should be better, or at least more consistent. He’s spent a great deal of time conducting Mahler with the LA Phil: usually it is wonderful (a Mahler 9 performed around the time they recorded it together in 2012/13 was fantabulous), but can often be meh (a Mahler 5 that I found thrilling in the moment did not hold up so well when I listened to broadcasts of the same performance months later). His interpretations of other composers he favors — Mozart, Tchiakovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, to name a few — are typically beautiful, moving, and even interesting, but rarely transformational. In comparison, any performance of Stravinsky, Sibelius, Debussy, or Lutosławski ten years into Esa-Pekka Salonen’s music directorship was guaranteed to be somewhere between insightful and definitive.
The biggest exception to this inconsistency: 20th Century American music.
From the moment he first became a media sensation with his rendition of “Mambo” from Bernstein’s West Side Story, Mr. Dudamel has always been a compelling interpreter of this often-neglected cadre of composers. He imbues this repertoire with the same respect and commitment that he does to the Austro-Germanic canon without attempting to turn the former into the later. The results are reliably impressive.
The opening concerts of the 2019/2020 proved to be latest examples of this. In two concerts I attended, both featuring the same works by Barber, Gershwin, Previn, and Copland, Mr. Dudamel was in his element.
The program opened with Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Barber’s song setting of the opening text from A Death in the Family, the autobiographical novel by James Agee. It features a young boy’s naive musings on the things and people he observes, foreshadowing the loss referred to in the novel’s title. With that inspiration, Barber creates a landscape that veers back and forth between spacious and frantic using a musical language that feels like the midpoint between Copland’s Billy the Kid and Stravinsky’s “No Word from Tom” from The Rake’s Progress.
Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra navigated the contrasting passages exceptionally, while maintaining a sense of tension. The woodwinds in particular had a wonderfully sinewy quality that enhanced the feeling of melancholy throughout; kudos to Boris Allakhverdyan (clarinet), Denis Bouriakov (flute), Whitney Crockett (bassoon), and Anne Marie Gabriele (oboe) for their important contributions.
Soprano Julia Bullock was the capable soloist. Her interpretation was a bit distant, even analytical during the Thursday performance, but by Sunday’s matinee, her singing was subtly emotional, resulting in a more touching and satisfying rendition.
Next up was Gershwin’s bluesy Piano Concerto in F, with Angeleno Jean-Yves Thibaudet joining Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra as the soloist. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more persuasive musician to present this underrated and underappreciated work, and he proved that again in these performances. Unlike some other famous pianists (*cough* Yuja Wang *cough cough*), Mr. Thibaudet plays this music as if it were written for him. He traverses Gershwin’s technical challenges with ease. Moreover, he knows when, how, and — most importantly — how much to swing, often pushing boundaries but always tastefully so. His handling of the rollicking outer movements led to extended applause after each, but it was the 2nd movement that was the true gem, full of reverie tinged with swagger, changing tempo and dynamics with welcome natureleness; Tom Hooten played the famous trumpet solo in that movement with stylish restraint.
Throughout the entire concerto, Mr. Dudamel and orchestra were perfect partners, adding richness and depth, never trying to make Gershwin sound like Strauss but not trying to make him sound like Coltrane either. Despite some less-than-tidy moments with the percussion on Thursday and the strings on Sunday, it was a glorious triumph.
After intermission were two purely orchestral works. Andre Previn was to have written a new work in honor of the orchestra’s centennial, but sadly the former Music Director of the LA Phil passed away without the work having been completed. In its place was programmed his short piece, Can Spring be Far Behind? It’s a musical hodge-podge: angular one moment, jazzy the next, then pivoting to old-Hollywood-style lush, and back and forth. Entertaining to be sure, but less than captivating. Glad I heard it the first time, not sure I needed to hear it a second, and definitely don’t need a third.
Closing the program was the suite to Appalachian Spring, Copland’s score for Martha Graham’s ballet of the same name. Even more than he did with the other pieces, Mr. Dudamel treated this most familiar work of the evening with the kind of spiritual approach — dare I say reverence — applied more typically to Bruckner. He let the slower passages breathe without ever allowing them to be turgid, and keeping the faster movements snappy yet eminently danceable. His transformation of the “Simple Gifts” tune from folksy melody to fanfare and ultimately to regal march was done with perfect bloom. The final movement denouement which followed it was the ideale exhale, with Mr. Dudamel milking every ounce of silence at the conclusion to maximize the effect. It worked brilliantly. It was also the orchestra’s best playing in both concerts, with strings achieving the right mix of warmth and sheen, the woodwinds lustrous, brass resplendent, and percussion ever-present without becoming overpowering.
It was an impressive and entertaining start to the season.
Random other thoughts:
- At both concerts I attended, the audience was shockingly loud, like they were still in Hollywood Bowl mode despite having moved into the more resonant confines of Walt Disney Concert Hall. It manifested itself percussively on Thursday, with dropped canes, dropped programs, and coughs puncturing airy musical passages. On Sunday, it was an abundance of cell phone ringers left on, with a particularly jazzy piano riff providing some in opportune clashes with Mr. Thibaudet’s playing. Ugh.
- The audience wasn’t the only group still not in top fall-season form. On Thursday, the house managers had a rather obtuse moment when they prematurely turned down the house lights and let Mr. Dudamel walk onstage to the podium after intermission even though a large contingent of donors were still filing back to their seats after having spent some time schmoozing and celebrating with Chad Smith, the newly promoted CEO of the LA Phil. Mr. Dudamel stood and waited a few extra minutes until everyone was seated. Then again on Sunday: in the middle of one of the pieces, they inadvertently turned the house lights fully on, then overcompensating by turning most of the lights off (except those on stage, thankfully), before finally getting them right again. In addition to some nervous chuckles from the audience, there were some smirks clearly evident among the musicians on stage.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: October 3 and 6; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Julia Bullock, soprano
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F
Previn: Can Spring be Far Behind?
Copland: Suite, Appalachian Spring
- Comings and goings at the LA Phil and beyond (Fall 2019 edition): new CEO, harp, and violins; a Principal Oboe update; plus much more
- Mr. Thibaudet portrait: photo by Eric Dahan/Intenser
- Ms. Bullock portrait: photo by Christian Steiner
- Ms. Bullock seated: photo by Dario Acosta
- Mr. Thibaudet in front of piano: photo by Andrew Eccles