A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel, the L.A. Phil’s newly anointed music director, who took over the helm of the orchestra last year from its previous wunderkind, Esa-Pekka Salonen, didn’t actually conduct the L.A. Phil much last year because of a heavy schedule of previous engagements.

So, in fact, this year is his de facto first year as the principal director, and, as such, he is slated to conduct many more concerts. One look at his schedule shows that no matter what other music he programs on a given concert, he almost without exception performs a modern work with the orchestra, many of which are world premieres.

His opening concert this past weekend, however, saw a very traditional program of all classical works, including Carl Maria Von Weber’s Overture to Der Freischutz, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 with Emanuel Ax as the soloist, and the Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 by Robert Schumann.

Not only did all three composers’ lives overlap, but all three pieces were composed within about 30 years of one another. And each composer in his own right provided a bridge to the Romantic era.

In his short tenure as music director of the L.A Phil, Dudamel is already well known for championing new music, but it’s hard not to think that he still prefers the classical and romantic repertoire — that is, if his performance on Saturday night was any indication.

Of course, each of the three pieces he selected is brilliant and looks like a lot of fun to conduct. And one thing you can say about Dudamel: he has fun on the podium if smiling while he works is any clue.

In all three selections, Dudamel sculpted the music and, as always, wasn’t afraid to exploit the dynamic extremes from the quietest of pianissimos to the loudest of fortissimos. In between, he crafted the music as he feels it, a distinctly different approach than his Nordic predecessor. Both approaches produce beautiful music, but Dudamel is admittedly more fun to watch.

After a splendid performance of the Weber, save for a few understandable horn flubs in the opening passage, Ax joined Dudamel on stage to perform the Beethoven fourth piano concerto. Ax, known in part for his interpretation of late romantic piano repertory, was equally at home with the Beethoven and showed that he could dazzle with the powerful passages as well as the delicate extended trills.

The evening concluded with the Schumann fourth symphony. Except for a few awkward places where the different sections of the orchestra didn’t come in exactly at the same time — a likely result of Schumann’s orchestration — Dudamel conducted with a precision that seems at odds with his emotional rendering. He resisted the temptation to rush the music in several places in the score (which, by the way, he did not use) thus making the symphony sound more expansive and, indeed, romantic than other versions.

All in all, the concert was a wonderful beginning to the 2010-11 season of the L.A. Phil.