by Tom Manoff
Gustavo Dudamel in L.A : Charismatic, yes. Arrogant, no.
CLASSICAL MUSIC needed an injection of energy. Enter Gustavo Dudamel. Some critics see the Venezuelan Wunderkind as merely an over-hyped rookie. I see him as a ready-to-go, extraordinary talent. And a game-changer.
In April 2010, I saw the 29-year-old conductor lead a concert called Dudamel Conducts Bernstein and Lieberson, part of his America and Americans series.
Even before the sold -out concert, Disney Hall was whirring. Half the audience ranged from children to 40-somethings. Many spoke Spanish. As they gathered inside, people met for drinks or coffee, wandering the levels of the hall looking down at moving bodies, faces and outfits. And the mode of dress wasn’t Oscar Carpet—more edgy and artsy meets “I’m-a-musician -so- my -pants- aren’t -pressed. ” It was more like a theater audience than classical. Dudamel’s reputation as an audience- magnet is true. Listen up, folks. There were young people in the seats. They were cheering.
Mexican composer Carlos Chávez’s Toccatas for Percussion opened. Sometimes percussion pieces fail through lack of interesting interpretation beyond the score. But Dudamel brought this piece alive with something more than precision. Rhythmic gestures were imbued with character. The conductor and the players had a clear intent with each motive, pattern and timbre. Dudamel’s stick technique was precise. The rapport with his players was obvious. At the bows, I got my first taste of Dudamel’s onstage demeanor. Exciting, yes. Arrogant, no. He points to his players with genuine admiration and respect. He’s no phony, folks.
Peter Lieberson’s well-crafted and lovely Neruda Songs was well played if not well sung. While it’s unfair to expect a singer to match the original ( the work was dedicated to and sung by Lieberson’s wife, Lorrane Hunt Lieberson, who died a few years back), mezzo -soprano Kelley O-Connor’s interpretation was somewhat forced, an effort at lyricism rather than a genuine uprising from the soul.
The emerging message at this concert: Not only can Dudamel conduct contemporary music, its language and significance is a vital part of his musical life.
Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No.2, The Age of Anxiety was the second half. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet played the part Bernstein wrote for himself. Like many of Lennie’s compositions, the vision isn’t completely matched by the result, especially the form. Even so, the music was ravishing and fresh-sounding. Thibaudet seemed outside his stylistic range. The sparsely voiced sections seemed plunky, the jazzy rhythms didn’t swing. At some points he was out-of-sync with the orchestra. No disaster. Dudamel and his players covered it and kept going. This orchestra has the Bernstein soul and sound. Even with problems from the soloist, the work was powerfully imagined and delivered. It was Lennie in all his magic and issues. It was American Music.
Two nights later Dudamel repeated his inaugural concert from October 2009: John Adams’ City Noir and Mahler’s Symphony No.1, the Titan.
When I see long program notes from a composer, I don’t read them. I want to hear the music first, then the explanation. The title City Noirspoke plenty to me, hinting at film. The well- crafted work was raw and sweet, jazzy, energetic and wonderfully American. Obvious references to film music often hit my “cliche” button. But was that his intent ?
The orchestra writing is virtuosic. The L.A. players brought it off, working hard, but never out of breath. And Dudamel had it in his head, hands and soul. Audience response was wild, but not some pro forma ritual for a new work. The connection to the music was genuine. Adams is both complex and populist, which speaks to his talent and success.
The concerts offered something about composing these days. The Adams seemed substantial and powerful, the Lieberson well-crafted and emotionally nuanced, but it was the Bernstein that pierced through the historical crust and contemporary efforts that still vie for legitimacy in the steady shadows. Even a living genius is hard put to find pure light.
I’ve heard the Mahler too many times these past years. I may be in the minority, but I don’t think it’s the composer’s finest symphony. Hearing it countless times isn’t changing my mind.
Also on the Americas series that weekend was Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos, conducted by Maria Guinand.
Three days of concerts with only one work composed before 1900! And audience response throughout was thunderous delight. Demographics: Half at each concert ranged from children to 50-somethings. Any talk about contemporary music keeping audiences away is out the window. Gustavo Dudamel is showing what classical music must bring to the 21st century. Orchestras throughout the world are taking notice.
Critics everywhere are taking on Dudamel and L.A. with knives out. They’ve got their traditional ears looking for any kind of misstep. Fine. But there’s jealousy and resentment about this kid, especially in towns other than L.A..
Dudamel brings a new kind of conductor’s soul to the century. His natural affinity for contemporary music and much-needed cultural understanding of all the Americas will open and excite audiences. It’s no mistake that he conducts Bernstein and Adams so well.
He can be flashy. So what? Dudamel’s appeal is not just charisma; it’s that he’s not arrogant in it. He’s not some Messiah come to save classical music, but a game-changer and a populist who can stroll through classical music’s shrines with skill, affection and new energies. The diversity and youth of his audience, alone, has revved up my soul. Let’s go.