Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


April 06, 2008

Dudamel, Josefowicz and the LA Phil
Photo : mine 2008

It was better. Not great, but better. Over these last few months I have increasingly felt (for no reason other than my own delusions of grandeur) that I alone am carrying the “con” banner when it comes to discussions of Gustavo Dudamel and his veritable beatification by the media here in Los Angeles and around the world. If you don’t believe me, just look at the cover of yesterday’s LA Times. Now I’m no stranger to gushing, but, as I have made the case on many prior occasions, Dudamel is overrated as a conductor at this point in his career.

Now all that being said, I am also aware that mantels can be heavy to bear, so let me put mine down for a moment to talk about the fact that I actually do think the LA Phil’s music-director-to-be is very talented. He exudes a warmth and clearly is well-liked by the orchestra and other musicians. Twice in the last two weeks, he seated himself amongst the orchestra members in order to watch encore performances from celebrity soloists. He appears to care deeply about what he is doing and arguably does bring excitement to the proceedings. Although his approach seems overly enthusiastic a little too often, he is not dull to watch. And frankly dull may be a bigger crime than overstated.

This weekend the Philharmonic was again in his hands with a largely French program including Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Ravel’s complete ballet music for Daphnis and Chloé. And, while neither was perfect, there was a clear sense of dynamics, particularly in the Ravel. I’m usually not a fan of ballet music (with a few exceptions) and the Ravel is not a favorite. I thought Dudamel’s account was engaging and worthwhile. The Pacific Chorale sounded great as did the Philharmonic players. The Debussy seemed unfocused, but was not bombastic or inappropriate at all. Of course I was sitting in the Balcony due to the high demand for tickets for all these sold-out shows this weekend, which may have tempered things for me, but I still felt this was a significant improvement over his last few appearances with the LA Phil, and certainly the best since his debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The other big item on the menu was the second Bartòk violin concerto with Leila Josefowicz, which I admired more in concept than in actual execution. Josefowicz seemed distant to me at times, but this is not an easily digestible work, and to feature it is the first sign that Dudamel won’t completely be timid about the 20th century (or at least the first half of it). It seemed to me that conductor and soloist were attentive to one another even though it didn’t quite come together all the way. So, admittedly, I for one left Sunday’s matinée pleased. Despite my recent doom and gloom on the topic, I think the Dudamel era may well be a remarkable one. There may be a lot of PR crap to cut through to get to it, but it may be there. And maybe I can begin to believe that NY didn’t get the better bargain with Alan Gilbert after all.

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Agree with your assessment of the program, and while not in attendance this week, the KUSC broadcast did sound good for all the world to hear.
Interesting programming for his two weeks - Fantastique and Daphnis, both with baccanalia! Nothing like over-the-top works to showcase a conductor-designate. Next season he returns to showcase Alpine Symphony, Beethoven's Pastoral, 4 Last Songs, and his prowess with Tchaikovsky's 4th. Should provide all the info needed to determine if he is as advertised. Seems like it to me, yet time will tell.
Nice review as usual, Brian. I was actually kind of blown away by the whole concert; it helped that I was sitting behind the stage, about 5 feet from the basses. I thought Mr. Dudamel did an incredible job with the Bartok and the Ravel (which is one of my favorite scores), whereas I'd had problems with his Symphonie Fantastique and the whole SBYO concert that I attended.

Yes, the hype is pretty bad now, but watch, in 3 or 4 years time, the backlash will set in, big time. It's almost a law of physics! :-)

Next season he returns to showcase Alpine Symphony, Beethoven's Pastoral, 4 Last Songs, and his prowess with Tchaikovsky's 4th.

I see what you mean, he'll be judged mainly on how he handles the warhorses, but the most interesting pieces are the ones you didn't mention (and what *I'll* judge him by): Ligeti's awesome Atmospheres and Kurtag's Stele. Lots to look forward to at the end of the year.
Finally one who dares say the truth. That Mr. Dudamel has talent can't be denied. But I find his interpretations brusque, superficial, bombastic and lacking refinement. He is still young. Conductors take decades to develop. Leonard Bernstein started writing musical comedies, and wasn't until his forties that he began to give his better performances. Von Karajan and Solti started in the opera podium as assistants. Both had to wait until middle age to give outstanding perfomances. Solti himself once said that a conductor must start in the bottom as an opera assistant. Dudamel is only pure "show", and promoted for his youth not because of professional musicianship. We have seen this "phenomenon" before: Midori [and she is quite a good violinist], Nigel Kennedy and cellist Ha Nan Chang. After much "brouhaha" in the beginning, a short time later they are exhausted and forgotten. Dudamel is no exception.
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