Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gustavo con gusto

LA and its Philharmonic enter affair with Dudamel

by Donna Perlmutter

He used to be the starriest young arrival in the international conductor sweepstakes. That was then. Four years ago – before clinching the win.

But after Gustavo Dudamel launched his first season as podium chief of the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- with18,000 revelers at Hollywood Bowl and then at Disney Hall, which was sold to the walls and thronged with celebrities -- the Venezuelan Wunderkind is on world-watch, thanks to the information superhighway and media pitched to a 24/7 news cycle. And, oh, yes, let us not forget his extraordinary gifts and his charisma, duly captured by the electronic billboards and posters all over town.

Meanwhile, it would be good to remember that Dudamel, the product of an honest-to-god socialist democracy, knows music’s inherent value of community and collaboration. Why, he’s even sat in as an ad hoc string quartet’s second violin for an evening of chamber music with the orchestra players – how’s that for humility and egalitarianism?

All we had to do at Disney was observe his conduct at curtain-call time. No solo bows. Not even a tiny one. Instead he bounded off the podium and rushed to acknowledge his musicians, threading his way through the music stands, rousing soloist by soloist, section by section, to stand for their own deserved ovations. Only together with them, not as a separate being, would he beam back at the audience.

The music-making itself justified the uproarious response it got. First came a world premiere, John Adams’ City Noir, just what its title indicates: an extrapolation of scores written for Hollywood’s 40s and 50s film-noir genre – vaguely menacing, lonely sounding episodes of melancholy that swirl with smoldering languor. The work is a kind of Blues in the Night alternating with eerie, shimmering parts, intricate collisions of winds and strings, accented with Adams’ signature: warmly bouncy, minimalist flirtations.

Dudamel took the piece vigorously in hand and the players more than obliged.

But it was the Mahler First that our young maestro seized on, communicating every scintilla of its pastoral joy, lugubrious shtetl memory, piquant nostalgia and sky-touching exhilaration – which is not to say that he slighted delicacy or subtlety.

It’s all there. And it’s there because he’s in constant contact with the musicians. As though to say, “I’m on the ride of my life and I’m taking you with me. We’re on this ride together.”

What we heard in the Mahler, as well as in his previous outings here, was the Dudamel stop-and-consider moments. As if to underline a word by spelling it aloud he would elongate a passage, stretch it out as though teaching it – both to the players and the audience. And then, in its repeat, breathlessly speed it up as though to say, “Yes, now we know it intimately. Here is its ultimate impact.”

That’s one thing L.A. audiences already know about Dudamel and the Phil: they make fabulously full-blown, gorgeously high-colored music together.

It’s of a different order than what the orchestra yielded with Esa-Pekka Salonen, who, over his 17 years as music director, shaped and refined the band’s performance to a glistening shine. In fact, for all the Finnish conductor’s masterly ways with big, complex scores running multiple rhythms simultaneously, he often managed standard repertory – Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms – as would a sonic engineer, moving things carefully and with perfect balance but staying largely on the surface.

Dudamel takes the opposite tack – the highs are dizzying, the lows rumble – but his marvelous sense of abandon and vitality is undergirded by utter control. That’s what’s so amazing: the combination. And no better example could be heard last season than in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

It reflects his youth, 28, not just his huge talent. It’s all sunshine, full of character. Even the thunderstorm is a Technicolor close-up. And he dances, involuntarily, it seems: His whole body becomes the music, or at least the medium through which it passes. Nothing is designed here. It’s a case of spontaneity, of riding in the now.

Of course there’s no forgetting Carlo Maria Giulini’s very different way with the Pastoral. The late old-world Italian maestro who led the Phil for a few years in the 80s found, in the Sixth Symphony, a hushed, tensile lyricism – sustaining the slow movement as a single breath. But for all the brilliance of Salonen’s account of the Beethoven Fourth, so full of big architectural sites and needing only to be rocked to a rhythmic fury (which he did), his Pastoral was just a sleepy glide through the park, a place to beat time. Yes, that awful way station for too many conductors who turn into a human metronome.

And while we’re comparing Salonen and Dudamel – maybe the same way the late linguist Bill Safire compared the outgoing Reagan and the incoming Bush 1: the former liked jelly beans, the latter (supposedly) preferred pork rinds, an identifying process called the semiotics of dissimilarity – we might as well pay attention to their opposing physical and sartorial style.

Salonen had become, in these last years of his tenure, surely the hippest baton-wielder. He now wears slim, drapey, long black jackets over black silky collar-less shirts. He moves into action for big climactic moments like a slithery kinetic module. A marvel to watch, by itself, but also, importantly, an expression of the music’s underlying rhythmic convulsions.

Dudamel (who’s being affectionately called “The Dude”) has not lived in the world of fashionistas. His podium attire harks back to the old tradition -- white tie, white ruffled shirt with cumberbund and tails. But one thing he never is: a time beater. He leaps into the music, across the music stands, in an entirely unself-conscious way that still retains a certain body togetherness.

In fact, the orchestra members seem to be in love. They actually watch him, they lock eyes with him – and that’s something seldom seen; more often players follow in their scores and hardly look at the guy up there waving his arms. Really, it’s like the beginning stage of an affair, when every glance is meaningful, every caress observed. And we heard that last season in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, where they and their inamorata lingered too long, too lovingly over many phrases, breaking apart the continuity.

The love affair will deepen, no doubt, and move onto more familiar ground. This is just the beginning. But what a beginning.

No comments: