Friday, October 16, 2009

Casual Listening - Dudamel Concert Review

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

October 16, 2009

I’ve been away at a conference this week, without a chance to listen to new music. Next week will be a double issue. In the meantime, here’s a review of a concert that you ought to be aware of.

Dudamel's Winning Premiere

In an age when a “classical event” feels like an oxymoron, the national simulcast and webcast of opening night at the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be the talk of the music world for a long time to come. Gustavo Dudamel, a 28-year old Venezuelan, took the baton of one of the top North American orchestras, and powerfully so. People are nuts about Dudamel – not just the musical elite, but a lot of ordinary Angelinos, many who are paying attention to classical music for the first time. His story is inspirational; his music even moreso.

It's hard to see a year go by without another major study being done tolling the decline of classical music. Audiences are graying and shrinking, and 21st century audiences have less patience for music of the 18th and 19th. In the last few years these studies started grudgingly to include an asterisk: Venezuela. There's been a major effort in that country to put instruments and classical instruction in every school in the country. "El Sistema" (the system) has resulted in an unbelievable pipeline of new classical musicians that are just now coming of age through institutions like the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. So while Cuba's exporting shortstops to American baseball teams and Brazil's exporting midfielders to soccer leagues, Venezuela's starting to export principal violinists to American orchestras.

Dudamel has spent more than half of his life on the podium. He toured internationally as conductor of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, where he made an impression on the folks at the L.A. Philharmonic. From the sound of it, he makes an impression on everybody. Exuberant, flamboyant, engaging - it's emblematic that he made his major pre-season appearance with the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth.

The program for opening night juxtaposed novelty and tradition, the adventurous and the familiar. "City Noir" is a symphony commissioned from John Adams, one of America's most lauded living composers. This was paired on the program with Mahler's First Symphony, a crowd-pleaser with a second movement that's among the most recognizable passages this side of Beethoven.

The orchestra attacked the Adams symphony. Opening with brash, honking tones, it could easily have been the soundtrack to a lost Hitchcock movie. A cymbal and woodblock kicked in a syncopated beat while the wind section staggered over the top, invoking the pace of jazz with none of the familiar harmonies. Slower passages provided no respite, with eerie xylophone cascades rising from droning strings.

A trumpet solo at midpoint provided the piece’s only melodic handle, and it disappeared almost as soon as it appeared, replaced by violent lurches in the low brass. A saxophone picked through a wreck of notes. The arrival of bongos ultimately carried the piece to a dramatic climax, leaving a profound dread to hover in the silent air.

For a populist conductor, it's an odd introduction, although one that Dudamel managed to sell with tremendous energy and athleticism. He conveyed vividly this portrait of a dark, senseless city, a heightened dramatization of a place synonymous with drama. Despite enthusiastic applause, this isn't the kind of piece that's going to win over curious new listeners to contemporary music. Any commission involves risk, and this is an atypical entry for Adams, generally known for his accessibility. What it does show us is Dudamel’s willingness to take risk as well as his appetite for new music.

Dudamel's Mahler was exquisite. The pianissimo, lento opening of the first movement is a difficult one to conduct, and Dudamel showed above all a patience with the music that carried through the entire piece. He turned over each note with attentiveness, an expectation that there might be surprises hiding even under these familiar passages.

His approach to the second movement was romantic in the Hollywood sense - seductive, playful, lusty. He managed total intensity at a relaxed tempo, releasing the big, booming fourths with gusto. It was here that Dudamel the Epicure arrived, and that’s the persona that turns serious music connoisseurs into starry-eyed teenagers.

Long silences between movements served as palate-cleansers, giving the listener a chance to savor the finish of the prior emotion and prepare for the next one. Dudamel brought a dose of levity to the moodier third movement. His direction was measured and serious, but not too serious. The final movement broke with alarm, echoing the Adams symphony. Deliberately, Dudamel led the orchestra deliberately toward a grand, not grandiose conclusion.

As a conductor, Dudamel shows way more emotional range than you’d expect from a 28-year-old, and yet it’s the energy and audacity of his youth that’s spellbinding. Performances like this ought to be inspiring audiences for years to come.

You can catch a TV broadcast of the full concert on PBS October 21.

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