A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Gustavo Dudamel / Photo by Sylvia Lleli

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra is a great orchestra under the direction of any conductor, but when their 28-year-old Principal Music Director, Gustavo Dudamel, takes the podium, they are one of the world’s best orchestras.

And so it was on Saturday night when Dudamel led the orchestra in two works, each inspired by love and loss, the Dvorák Cello Concerto, Op. 104, with the equally young and talented Alisa Weilerstein as soloist, and the Symphony No. 6, Op. 74 (“Pathétique”) by Tchaikovsky.

Before the concert began President and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association Deborah Borda walked onstage and announced the retirement of two longtime LA Phil musicians, violist Jerry Epstein and trumpeter Boyde Hood, both of whom stood with her to receive the very appreciative applause from the audience.

After this brief ceremony, Weilerstein, clad in a bright red flowing dress, joined Maestro Dudamel and the members of the LA Phil in a performance of the Dvorák. The performance both by Weilerstein and the LA Phil was powerful even in the delicate passages, some of which feature the cello and solo flute rendered especially sensitively by Weilerstein and principal flutist, Philip Dikeman.

Dudamel had the score on the stand opened to the title page during the entire first movement (Allegro), but then turned the score to the second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) and seemed to be following the score sporadically during the second and third (Allegro moderato – Andante – Allegro vivo) movements. Bottom line is that he pretty much had the score memorized.

As with other string soloists in Disney Hall, it was difficult at times to hear Weilerstein’s playing.  As much as I love Disney Hall, both aesthetically and acoustically, its major drawback is that one cannot hear soloists, especially of stringed instruments, well from most seats in the house, unless the orchestra is either not playing or playing very softly. This is also a problem, though a lesser one, with hearing the string sections of the orchestra. The reason is that the sound holes of the stringed instruments face outwards toward the front orchestra sections. For those not in the direct path of the sound, the cumulative effect of the many instruments in the section somewhat compensates. Because Weilerstein was positioned in such a way so as to be able to see Dudamel, her instrument faced toward the Orchestra West section of the Hall, making it even more difficult for those in Orchestra East to hear, not to mention anyone sitting behind the orchestra. This is a problem with a hall like Disney in which the stage is not situated in the back.

Dudamel chose to end the concert and the 2010 season of LA Phil concerts at Disney Hall with the Sixth Symphony by Tchaikovsky. This symphony contains some of the most passionate and emotional writing in the repertoire, hence the name “Pathétique.” The symphony begins and ends with the quietest of markings (pp and pppp respectively). In between there is a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from the melancholy and tragic in the first movement (Adagio, Allegro non troppo), to the almost waltz-like graceful second movement (Allegro can grazia) written in the unusual 5/4 time signature, to the exhilarating march-like third movement (Allegro molto vivace), and finally returning to the brooding theme of the final movement (Adagio lamentoso).

Once again, without a score, Dudamel carved every nuance out of the Tchaikovsky and had the orchestra playing both as loudly and quietly as one can imagine. Before the first movement, he stood and waited for many seconds until the audience quieted down; and at the end of the last movement, he basically conducted the audience by holding his hands up and then very slowly lowering them, savoring not only the feeling of the whole symphony, but its dying embers as the divided cellos and double basses slowed and diminished to a barely audible sound.

In conducting the Tchaikovsky, Dudamel showed no signs of the pulled muscle in his neck suffered on Thursday night while conducting the Dvorák. In fact, just like Tchaikovsky in the Sixth Symphony, Dudamel pulled out all the stops, and this brings me back to my opening comment about Dudamel.

Dudamel loves what he does and he loves the music. It shows on his face (he frequently smiles at the musicians and some of them smile back at him) and in his enthusiasm both while he conducts and after the music is over when the audience screams and applauds. His joy at music making is contagious, and it is this, I think, that brings out the very best in the LA Phil musicians. Although I’m sure Dudamel will grow and mature as a conductor, it is scary to imagine how he can be much better than he is at this moment in time.