A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel took the stage Friday night, March 4, to conduct the LA Phil in works by Anton Webern, Toru Takemitsu, and Anton Bruckner.

Dudamel opened the concert with Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10. These orchestral miniatures represent the epitome of Webern’s goal of atonal sparseness. Actually the term “orchestra” is a bit misleading since it consists of only 16 instruments (including guitar and mandolin) plus percussion. However, true to Webern’s minimalist philosophy, I suppose this small ensemble is considered an orchestra. The entire length of the Webern was about five minutes, and a couple of the pieces were so short (only a few seconds) that one had to smile at their brevity. It’s difficult to critique the performance except to say that each of the players admirably did his or her part to convey the music’s atonal minimalism.

To further his goal of juxtaposing more modern music with the so-called classics, Dudamel and the LA Phil next performed the Requiem by Toru Takemitsu for string orchestra. It was this work, composed in 1957 and first performed in 1958, more than any of his other works, that assured Takemitsu’s rise to fame as a composer because it was no less than Igor Stravinsky who heard it on a visit to Japan and immediately began to sing Takemitsu’s praises. The piece is not out of place on a program with the Webern as it incorporates elements of atonality. However, somehow a string orchestra gives the appearance of more tonality, perhaps because we are used to hearing tonal masterpieces for string orchestras from the likes of Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams. And Dudamel and the LA Phil strings offered up a very tight yet flowing performance of Takemitsu’s requiem.

After intermission, Dudamel tackled the Symphony No. 7 in E major by Anton Bruckner. As Dudamel has done in the past with large-scale scores (e.g., Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony in 2008), he conducted without a score, indicating that he takes his job seriously and is not content to be merely familiar with the music; he wants to own it.

The Bruckner is a mature work, both musically and emotionally, from a mature symphonist, and on Friday night the 30-year-old conductor showed how he is mature beyond his years.

Dudamel reorganized the orchestra with the first violins and violas and the second violins and cellos, respectively, grouped together. Most interesting, however, was that Dudamel split the double basses so that there were five on the right and four on the left, which, among other things, must have made it easier for patrons sitting on the sides to better hear the basses. Since the first and second violins frequently trade thematic material, splitting them made it easier to hear the parts. The overall stereo effect was such a super sonic experience that the person behind me uttered “Wow!” at the end of the first movement.

Bruckner was the first person to incorporate the Wagner tuba into a symphony with his seventh. Moreover, some instruments are used very sparingly. For example, the timpanist sits through a majority of the 20-minute first movement before playing a roll that begins the coda marked sehr feierlich (very solemnly), making the entrance notable and dramatic. Likewise, the two other percussion instruments, the triangle and cymbal, only play one measure in the 70-minute piece, at the apex of the crescendo in the slow movement. The Wagner tubas play only in the second and fourth movements.

The combination of Bruckner, Dudamel, the world-class LA Phil, and the sonically brilliant Disney Hall made for a dazzling performance. Dudamel’s energy and emotional expression on the podium are infectious not only with the orchestra, getting the best from them, but with the audience as well.

I thought I was a Brucknerd, but when walking out of the concert another patron told me that he had driven up from Orange County, was returning on Sunday to hear the concert again, and would have attended the LA Phil’s performance at Segerstrom Hall on Saturday if he hadn’t had previous plans.