A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil opened their Brahms Unbound series this weekend with performances of the Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 and the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. In addition, the orchestra performed L’arbre des songes (Tree of Dreams), a violin concerto by the contemporary French composer Henri Dutilleux, with the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos as soloist.

The concert on Friday evening opened with a full-throttled performance of the Academic Festival Overture, a piece that Brahms wrote as a thank you to the University of Breslau for conferring upon him an honorary doctor of philosophy degree. The Overture boasts the most diverse orchestration in Brahms’ orchestral repertoire, including contrabassoon, tuba, and bass drum, in addition to trombones, cymbals, and triangle (which are found in other Brahms orchestral works).

The sometimes somber, but mostly boisterous Academic Festival Overture was a perfect way to start a concert at the end of a workweek. Like a dose of caffeine, Dudamel and the LA Phil jolted the audience awake with a well-rounded and sparkling performance.

The Dutilleux is not like a traditional violin concerto where the orchestra accompanies the violin soloist. Rather, both orchestra and violinist are equal soloists with each accompanying the other throughout the piece. The orchestral writing is superb with splashes of color from all sections, but especially from instruments like the relatively unusual cimbalom.  Kavakos, looking younger than his 43 years and less like a concert violinist and more like a tall, lanky college kid, produced a consistently warm sound that perfectly complemented the orchestra.

After the rousing conclusion to the Academic Festival Overture, the audience’s reception of the less familiar Dutilleux was more muted, but grew more appreciative as Dudamel and Kavakos exchanged grateful gestures.

Even though the first half of the concert was outstanding, this particular evening was all about the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms. Dudamel and the LA Phil offered up a breathtaking performance of the symphony, taking it to unimaginable heights.

First, it must be noted that Dudamel has a way of pushing the envelope when it comes to exploring the extremes of dynamic ranges with the goal of making the dynamic contrasts that much greater, and this was evident in all three works on Friday night, but especially in the Symphony No. 1. It is as if Dudamel first assesses the forte and fortissimo markings and then gauges the quieter parts accordingly.

Dudamel took Brahms’ score and sculpted a muscular, yet sensitive symphony. The dramatic opening, with its pounding eighth notes in the timpani, bassoons, and double basses, was given a greater sense of urgency with a slower tempo even in the Allegro section. In fact, even though Dudamel played all movements at a somewhat slower tempo, there was never a sense of dragging. This tactic in lesser hands might have backfired, but in Dudamel’s already very capable hands it rendered an already mighty symphony even mightier.

The second movement (Adante Sostenuto) didn’t so much begin as seem to simply rise above an inaudible threshold of the musicians already playing. It was almost ethereal.

Dudamel’s handling of the beginning of the fourth movement illustrates my point about exploring extreme dynamic ranges. The first notes of the pizzicato section were barely audible, which gave Dudamel an opportunity to make the quick transition to the fortissimo even more dramatic. In the Allegro section, however, Dudamel either sped up the tempo slightly or, like a magician, gave the impression that he did.

And the musicians of the LA Phil respond to their new leader. The sound of the horns, especially that of Elizabeth Cook-Shen, was rich and warm. Ariana Ghez always produces a light and airy sound in the oboe. And Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s solo in the second movement was sentimental without being maudlin.

Dudamel is a champion of new music and schedules it frequently, but if his interpretation of the Brahms First Symphony is any indication, he is becoming a master of the old masters — with his own spin, of course. All in all Dudamel’s Brahms First was a spellbinding performance that can truly be said to have unbound Brahms.

The last performance of this concert is tomorrow, May 8, at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Don’t miss it!