Much has been written about the excessive publicity surrounding Gustavo Dudamel and his rapid ascension to the throne of music director of the LA Phil. Is the man equal to the hype? I must admit, each time I see him, I keep expecting to find some crack in the armor or some glaring weakness where he fails to measure up.
Interestingly, I thought that perhaps some fault might be revealed in his interpretations of Mozart during his concerts this weekend at Disney Hall. Since his debut in LA over a year ago, Dudamel has conducted mostly large-scale orchestral works that because of the sheer size of the orchestra might make most conductors sound good (although I don’t really believe that). Nevertheless, I thought that if any music could prove Dudamel to be mortal, that is, simply a talented young conductor with plenty yet to learn rather than a superstar worthy of the media frenzy, it would be truly classical symphonies with their more intimate scaled-down orchestras as Mozart’s are (with only two horns, two trumpets, no clarinets, and tympani as the only percussion instrument). But Saturday’s concert revealed no such cracks and, on the contrary, showed Dudamel to be a true maestro at the very young age of 28.
Dudamel opened the concert with Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major, “The Prague,” written when Mozart was only two years older than Dudamel is now. Although the Symphony No. 38 is in the key of D major, it begins with an Adagio in the minor reminiscent of the composer’s opera “Don Giovanni” written just one year later and also premiered in Prague. Dudamel played the minor key sections of the Adagio more like a funeral march, which, by contrast, made the D major Allegro more light and breezy. But there is nothing light about the Prague symphony. Both the outer movements develop a momentum that builds to dramatic conclusions, and in resisting the temptation to rush them, Dudamel made the symphony sound more majestic as he also did in his interpretation of the Jupiter symphony in the second half of the concert.
Both soloist Gil Shaham and the orchestra showed off their talents in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, which combines elements of the 12-tone serial technique with more traditional tonal qualities in such a way as to make the tonal parts seem even more melodic. Berg was inspired to write the concerto by the untimely death of the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma, at the age of 18 from polio. In so doing, the concerto almost portends the composer’s own death shortly after he completed it in 1935. The opening movement, Andante, begins with a dialogue of arpeggios between the B flat clarinet and harp and the solo violin playing on the open strings (G D A E). The sound is ethereal and strongly suggests the concerto’s dedication “to the memory of an angel.” Shaham, who with his masterful playing, once again demonstrated why he is one of the most sought-after soloists, is concentrating on performing violin concertos of the 1930s this season. Special mention goes to LA Phil trombonists Larry Zalkind and John Lofton for their exceptional playing toward the end of the second movement.
Any possible lingering doubts about Dudamel were laid to rest with his inspired performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major, “The Jupiter.” Of course, the symphony itself is inspired, but in Dudamel’s hands, the incredible musicians of the LA Phil realized that inspiration. Dudamel became possessed by the music so much so that he conducted with his whole body and at a couple of points in the finale only conducted with his head. The glorious conclusion of the Jupiter left the audience breathless and awed.
Because of his youth, I expected Dudamel to run through both Mozart symphonies quickly, but surprisingly, he did not succumb to that temptation and instead plumbed each movement for its musical treasures often obscured in recordings. Dudamel didn’t so much conduct the symphonies as craft them, molding every melodic line and phrase. He was careful not only to stress the melodies, but also to make sure that the audience heard the supporting and harmonic parts. He also arranged the orchestra such that the double basses were placed directly behind the woodwinds, thus making it possible for their sound to be more evenly projected and also increasing the heft of the symphonies.
I would urge anyone who hasn’t yet witnessed the Dudamel phenomenon to do so. That will lay to rest any doubts about his musical talents. Deborah Borda has assured herself a place in LA’s musical heaven for finding and grabbing Dudamel when she did.