Gustavo Dudamel, LA’s new musical titan, conducted Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, “The Titan,” at Disney Hall last night. Dudamel led the orchestra in the Mahler Symphony in the second half of a concert that also featured the world premiere of Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra, titled “Su.”
Chin’s concerto, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, showcased an unusual instrument: the sheng. Also called the Chinese mouth organ, it is an ancient (4,000-year-old) instrument that both looks and sounds like an organ, albeit on a much smaller scale. With 37 pipes, it looks to be an amazing feat just to hold it for any period of time, much less for the 23 minutes demanded by Chin’s concerto.
The soloist in Chin’s concerto, Wu Wei, considered the foremost avant-garde sheng performer, displayed both a technical mastery of the instrument as well as the ability to simultaneously move his body with the changing rhythms of the concerto.
The piece itself, like many contemporary pieces, is probably difficult to grasp musically unless one is a musician or a musicologist. Overall, these types of compositions sound like they could be the background music for a horror film, with very high, often harmonic glissando playing in the strings, punctuated by sharp reports by the percussion instruments and brass. One section was reminiscent of the overlapping tape loops and reversed sound in the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” from the “White Album.” But, even if one couldn’t understand the piece musically, the variety of instruments used in creating the rich musical textures were enough to captivate the audience.
At the completion of the concerto, the audience showed their appreciation with polite, but not thunderous applause. A few patrons gave a standing ovation. But Dudamel, in his ever-so-humble fashion, stood to the side and refused to take a bow, leaving the spotlight for Wei. The composer, Chin, then left her seat in the audience and joined Wei and Dudamel on stage for very deserving accolades from the audience.
After intermission, Dudamel returned to conduct Mahler’s first symphony. Once again displaying his age-defying ability to memorize long orchestral works in the repertoire, Dudamel set out to render the piece that his namesake sketched out at a similar age.
In his rendition, Dudamel was true to the composer’s wishes. For example, unlike many versions of the second movement that are played at faster tempos, Dudamel religiously adhered to Mahler’s marking, Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving strongly, but not too quickly). This gave the main theme of the movement a more powerful, intentional feel. Even the first movement was more restrained than other performances, following Mahler’s marking, Langsam, Schleppend (Slowly, dragging) Immer sehr gemächlich (very restrained throughout).
Dudamel was in complete control of the orchestra, and the musicians seemed in their element moving and swaying as they played. At the conclusion of the Mahler, the audience yelled and cheered and immediately rose to their feet. As is his style, rather than standing on the podium to take bows, Dudamel stepped down and mingled with the orchestra, offering individual and collective congratulations for their exceptional playing. In his last curtain call, he smiled and waved to different sections of the audience to their obvious delight before grabbing the concertmaster’s hand to lead the orchestra offstage.
If one forgets about Dudamel’s prodigious musical talent for a moment – a difficult thing to do – one sees a kid on stage having the time of his life and probably hardly believing where he has landed: the celebrated director of one of the world’s leading orchestras in the entertainment capital of the United States of America at the ripe young age of 28. His humbleness and modesty are as impressive and endearing as his musical gifts.