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In performance: Dudamel and LA

Edited to add: Coming in tomorrow's In Wednesday's Washington Post:

Dudamel leads uneven but brilliant evening
by Anne Midgette

The Gustavo Dudamel phenomenon swept into Washington again on Monday night. In the last couple of seasons, the young Venezuelan conductor (not yet 30) has shown the Kennedy Center both his earnest side (with the Israel Philharmonic) and the rowdiness and excitement that have helped galvanize audiences when “his” Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela danced on the stage and threw colorful warm-up jackets into an audience briefly transformed into teeny-boppers. On Monday, WPAS presented him at the Kennedy Center in yet another role: on his maiden tour with his newest orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where his accession at the start of the season drew huge crowds to an open-air, multi-cultural celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. This isn’t classical music as usual.

The current tour, however, is giving the nation’s critics a chance to evaluate Dudamel more soberly; after the near-unanimous praise of the last few years, a tone of warning has crept into some of the reviews. There’s no question that Dudamel is a brilliant talent; but there have always been things to criticize in his approach. He is an instinctive musician, but sometimes seems to conduct for the moment rather than with an eye to the whole work. On Monday, one could find plenty to carp at if one was so inclined: balance issues, shaky entrances, lackluster moments from the brass.

Frankly, though, that didn’t matter, because Dudamel and the orchestra also offered one of the most involving and compelling performances of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony I’ve ever heard. This was music played by someone who loves music, someone who had an idea where he was going with the piece; and the orchestra opened its collective heart and went right along with him. Perfect? No. Gorgeous? Yes. The big question about Dudamel has been how he would fare when given the responsibility of charting his own artistic course, and Monday’s concert showed someone who appeared to be moving in the right direction.
(read more after the jump)

The first half of the program was less masterful. Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety,” a sprawling symphony-cum-piano concerto, proved a good match of artists to music: both Dudamel and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the piano soloist, had something to say about Bernstein’s signature blend of exuberance, schmaltz, and beauty. But the piece is also episodic, and Dudamel, while reveling in the glories of individual moments (starting with the quiet, thoughtful clarinet duet that opens the piece, and continuing into the passages of ferocious energy that are a Bernstein trademark and a Dudamel forte), didn’t fully convince me of it as a whole.

Like so many of Bernstein’s pieces, this one longs to show its intellectual chops (it was inspired by Auden’s long narrative poem) while actually excelling most when it is most down-to-earth, with driving rhythms or long passages of atmospheric boogie-woogie (always a challenge for classical players). Thibaudet was now tender, now brash, and Dudamel gave full dramatic weight to the music’s frequent changes of pace. But imperfections from the orchestra -- like a strident flute emerging in the orchestra’s lush embrace of the soloist at the end of the cadenza -- slightly spoiled a rhetorical flow that was not entirely smooth to begin with.

And the start of the Tchaikovsky offered other reasons to quibble: the intensity slurs, for instance, as the orchestra poured out its lush first theme, or the stumbling of the instruments in the little downward runs that feature in it. But it quickly became clear that quibbles were irrelevant, because something pretty wonderful was happening. The music was alive to the tips of the players’ fingers, and it felt as if Dudamel had no time to focus on small things because he was aiming so powerfully for something greater. There’s nothing dark in his vision; this was a “Pathetique” with an underlying lilt even at darker moments, like the march-beats of the third movement (which he brought to a searing close). For all of his frenzied head-tossing on the podium, he is not mannered about emotion, nor is he determinedly sunny in his outlook. His performance is simply colored by the way he revels in the music’s sound.

And the orchestra, for all its small flaws, reveled along. Its last conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, specialized in a lithe transparency (something audible in, for instance, the slightly metallic quality of the solo strings); now, the musicians are playing for someone who is all about size and scope and heart. If there are some missteps along the way, it has to be worth it if it’s able to get results like this: music that’s played to be loved and enjoyed, before dying away, at the end, into a long silence. For some, that silence may have been too deliberate. For this listener, it was a way to savor what had just passed, before the ecstatic applause.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 18, 2010; 4:25 PM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Next: On CD: Glyndebourne "Idomeneo"


I couldn't agree more about Dudamel and LAPO last night -- imprecise playing, awkward balances -- but a great Tchaikovsky 6th. The emotional intensity reminded me of Bernstein.

Two small questions -- Was Thibaudet, who was obviously enjoying himself, a late addition to the program? It seems odd that he wasn't in any of the publicity for the concert.

And did you hear the John Adams concert earlier in the Terrace Theater? I thought it was a nice beginning to the evening, especially the really strong playing of the student musicians in the Chamber Symphony.


Posted by: geranuk | May 18, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Dudamel is the best thing to happen in Classical music since the leave-taking of Esa-Pekka Salonen.

He is young, fresh, talented and has great desire. Let us just hope that he stays here and grows up. Don't measure him yet against much older peers.

Posted by: mitrich | May 18, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

Loved last night's concert. Sure, some quibbles, but WOW, was I ever glad to have been there! Probably the most exciting moment in DC's classical music scene since Mariss Jansons dropped his arms and reveled with the rest of us at the glories of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Dudamel and Thibaudet were a perfect pair for the Bernstein piece. A thoughtful, interesting and, at times, even moving, conversation.

What I enjoyed most about the Pathetique was how MUSICAL, rather than sentimental, it was. I may be entirely wrong about this, but I thought many of the aforementioned imbalances (particularly the timpani) were intentional on Dudamel's part -- AND thrilling. And Ann, I agree with you about the final, "orchestrated" silence: a perfect ending. (And, to close the loop, one that Lenny would have loved.)

Posted by: dreichmann | May 18, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

What a joy to read a classical music critic who understands what classical music and live performance is all about. And it ain't about playing every note perfectly, nor is it about every ensemble entrance being exact, nor is it about conforming to any consensus or any one person's idea of how the piece should be played.

The live performance of classical music (of ANY music, actually) is about joy and passion in the moment. As an audience member you go in tabula rasa and hope the performance gets your blood circulating (to head, heart or soul) and/or makes the hair on the back of your neck stand.

If it does, then classical music is alive and well. If it doesn't -- if every note is played beautifully but the whole just sits there in some sterile 19th century perfection -- then classical music is dead.

Give me passion over perfection anytime.

Posted by: markiejoe | May 18, 2010 7:26 PM | Report abuse

"Don't measure him yet against much older peers"

He is the conductor of one of the country's most important orchestras. In the absence of other 29 year olds in similar situations, who is he going to be compared with?

I'm a big Dudamel fan but he is very much playing in the big leagues now, and deserves to be critiqued as such.

Posted by: ianw2 | May 18, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

@Geranuk, Thibaudet was with the NSO just a couple of weeks ago. Maybe there was a conflict marketing-wise.

Posted by: SamanthaP5 | May 19, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Thibaudet was always scheduled to play the Bernstein at every stop where the Bernstein was being played on this LAPO tour, and has been doing so.

Posted by: dlopata | May 19, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

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