Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1809, and grew up as a child of privilege who started composing before he was a teenager. Gustavo Dudamel was born in 1981 in Barquismeto, Venezuela, and grew up with decidedly less privilege. He, too, has achieved renown at a young age. Differences aside, the two came together this past weekend when Dudamel led the LA Phil in four all-Mendelssohn concerts featuring the Overture, “The Hebrides,” Op. 26; the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, with Janine Jansen as soloist; and the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, “Scottish.” And the result, at least on Sunday, was a resounding success.
Dudamel opened the concert with the “Hebrides” Overture, conceived when Mendelssohn was in Scotland and took a boat to the Hebrides Islands to see Fingal’s Cave. We know that the initial theme of the overture occurred to him at the time because he sent a postcard to his family back in Germany with that theme written on it. Although the overture doesn’t reflect any type of program, according to Sir George Grove writing in The Musical Times in 1905, “It is difficult to imagine that this enchanting composition could ever be mistaken for anything but a sea piece. … Those gusts which rise and fall, and sweep and whistle through the rocks; those descending notes, which seem to plumb the depths of ocean’s deepest caves; and other effects, which in the hands of an inferior musician would sound like imitations….” It is this evocative feature of the overture, along with the wonderful melodies, that has made the “Hebrides” Overture such a popular favorite among audiences ever since its premiere.
This certainly continued in Dudamel’s capable hands. The opening tempo was unhurried, which, when contrasted with the faster tempos in the more turbulent sections, perfectly conveyed the feeling of being on the sea off the coast of Scotland. Dudamel made the overture seem fresh, which is not an easy thing to do with such a well-known piece.
The first half of the concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto which, even though it was written relatively late in his short life (he died at 38), still has the freshness and vitality of some of his earlier masterpieces. Of course, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is one of the staples of the concert repertoire, and the audience at Disney Hall was treated to a sensitive reading by Janine Jansen. Perhaps because he is a violinist himself, Dudamel is very responsive to his soloists, especially the violinists; and he and Jansen danced beautifully together on Sunday. The audience’s appreciation, and possibly the fact that the concert was being broadcast live in approximately 400 movie theaters across the country, prompted Jansen to perform an encore, the haunting Sarabanda from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin.
One observation that I’ve had about the acoustics in Disney Hall is that stringed instruments don’t fare as well when accompanied by the orchestra, which often tends to drown them out in all but the quietest parts of concertos. And this seemed to happen on Sunday as well, even though Dudamel did his best to hold the orchestra back in the quieter moments.
The concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (which was the last symphony he completed). Although the Third Symphony is subtitled “Scottish,” it does not quote any particularly Scottish songs or melodies. In fact, except for the fact that Mendelssohn first conceived of both the “Hebrides” Overture and the Symphony No. 3 on the same trip to Scotland, both are only Scottish in that they represent Mendelssohn’s memories of his trip and the feelings they aroused in him. That is why the two pieces also share musical ideas. For example, they are both in minor keys, the overture in B minor and the symphony in A minor. And they share musical features as well. For example, toward the end of the first movement the rising and falling tremolo notes in the strings suggest the stormy seas depicted in the overture.
The performance of the Scottish symphony by Dudamel and the LA Phil was all Mendelssohn could have hoped in communicating his memories and feelings of his travels in Scotland, from the solemn beginning of the first movement to the lively, but slightly agitated Scherzo, to the rousing conclusion in A major.
Dudamel and the musicians of the LA Phil were all on their game Sunday, showing the audience in Disney Hall and in movie theaters around the country why they are one of the world’s great orchestras. Plus, we got to show off our great concert hall.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
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