When the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel did their last multi-city North American tour in 2010, they were met with a backlash against their wunderkind music director. Dudamel was in his first season, and the critics seemed determined to point out that he wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.
Tuesday night, the Washington Performing Arts Society brought Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic back to the Kennedy Center midway through another North American tour. Dudamel is in his fifth season. The orchestra, unlike several other North American orchestras, is in solid financial shape. It has commissioned and presented new work, and it has been a leader in establishing outreach programs. And Dudamel, with a touch of gray in his less-unruly curls, led the players with all of the visceral excitement and passion that brought him to quasi-superstar status in this field in the first place. As for the critics: The backlash has ebbed as if it had never been.
You won’t find any backlash from this critic. I’ve always been excited by Dudamel. Pointing out flaws has its place, but it seems slightly beside the point when someone has the genuine gift of making music so exciting. There are pieces I might rather hear than the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, but Dudamel and the orchestra made me forget all about that fact while I was in the concert hall. For that space of time, listening to this particular piece, with this particular orchestra, seemed like all I wanted to do in the world.
The orchestra toured with two programs: one with a soloist (the pianist Yuja Wang), the other without. Washington got the one without, two symphonies written a century apart: the Tchaikovsky was preceded by John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1. This work is no stranger to Washington; popularly known as the AIDS symphony, it won the National Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin a Grammy in 1997 for a recording made during Kennedy Center performances. Written in the late 1980s when the AIDS crisis was at its height, it sets out to be a kind of musical answer to the AIDS quilt, as channeled through Elgar’s “Enigma” variations, with each of its four movements conceived as a memorial to a different lost friend.
That this moving and evocative piece has become a monument of the past rather than of the present is a good thing: AIDS is treatable, its hold broken, at least in the United States. The symphony has lost none of its rage and sorrow, but the source of the rage has receded. We are left with a relic of bygone pain and anger, a kind of nostalgia that is well suited to the classical concert hall, bringing the work into line with so many other great landmarks of the canon. And this symphony roots itself in looking back: It deals almost less in music than in emotions, offering swatches of anger, grief, melancholy, even feverish mania (in the Tarantella of the second movement).
One of its hallmark moments is the appearance of an offstage piano playing a Godowsky arrangement of a piece by Albeniz. The orchestra sounds tonal and soft and wistful until the piano enters, and, with sweet quiet tones, turns the sustained string chords strident, brittle, like a cracked windowpane through which we are viewing something even more beautiful and out of reach. It’s a touching effect, but it is repeated several times, until it starts to become an effect indeed, an emotional directive, like a stage direction. And this is a weakness of this symphony: Its gestures are clear and strong, rich with evocation, but don’t necessarily go anywhere, repeated again and again in what becomes, perhaps fittingly, an expression of futility.
Dudamel and the orchestra (including the principal cellist, Robert deMaine, who is spotlit in the third movement, “Giulio’s Song”) played it with plenty of power and conviction. But it was in the Tchaikovsky that they really came alive. Dudamel, sometimes raw, always authoritative, moved the supporting chords beneath the themes with the lissome tread of lions’ paws. The winds sounded rich and chewy, the horns gentle as spring.
In the final movement, conductor and orchestra grabbed hold of the music with both hands and shook it fiercely, unrelentingly, ever building through its several climactic sequences, through to the end, a feat of physical endurance that left the audience braced and breathless. Even the encore, the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” sounded thrilling and vital, rather than, as it so often does in the opera, a pretty decoration to be endured.