Gustavo Dudamel embraces music, and the orchestra follows

Longhair phenom: Dudamel fulfills expectations once again.
Longhair phenom: Dudamel fulfills expectations once again. (Washington Performing Arts Society)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Gustavo Dudamel phenomenon swept into Washington again Monday night. In the past 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" Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela danced on the stage and threw colorful warm-up jackets into an audience briefly transformed into teenyboppers.

On Monday, the Washington Performing Arts Society 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, multicultural 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, and 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 "Pathétique" 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.

The program's first half 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 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 W.H. Auden's long narrative poem) while excelling when it is most direct and down-to-earth, with 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 -- such as 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 "Pathétique" 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 kind of 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 with 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 may have been too deliberate. For this listener, it was a way to savor what had just passed, before the ecstatic applause.

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