Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Here We Go. Again.

October 09, 2009

 
Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic at the end of the 2009 Opening Night Gala
Photo: mine 2009

At last, the highly anticipated night was here. Gustavo Dudamel made his debut as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday after months of ridiculous and escalating hype. The press has been so out of control that it led a friend of mine to develop concerns that Dudamel has been horribly constipated considering his bowel movements have been the only facts about him not breathlessly covered in the pages of the Los Angeles Times since his arrival in town a mere eight days ago. But he was clearly in good enough shape to lead the Gala concert as throngs of the tuxedoed and well-heeled including the likes of the Mayor and, if my eyes didn’t deceive me, William Shatner arriving champagne in hand. The inaugural concert program was filled with well-wishes from big money donors and the governator. Even the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors included a resolution they had painstakingly cut-and-pasted from the L.A. Philharmonic’s own press materials, which were also cleverly reproduced word-for-word elsewhere in the program, welcoming the 28-year-old as “one of the most exciting and compelling conductors of our time.” Rolex sponsored the evening, which included posters around the hall of a recent ad with the new maestro air-brushed into a younger, tanner Harry Connick, Jr.


But it was finally time to get down to actually making some music with the world-class orchestra now under Dudamel’s charge, and the young maestro arrived on stage clearly a little nervous from my vantage point, diving right into the world premiere of John Adams’ new commission for the Philharmonic, City Noir, without hardly a pause. It was a rather anti-climactic start, but on the bright side, for those still wondering whether or not Adams could write movie music if he wanted, you finally have you’re affirmative answer. City Noir is the third in a series of orchestral works Adams describes as being based on various periods in California’s history. As the name suggests, Adams took his inspiration from post-WWII Los Angeles and the film noir aura associated with the period. The work also references the American tradition of Jazz-influenced orchestral writing and, while the composer notes he didn’t intend to reference any specific film scores of the period, City Noir ends up sounding like what you’d expect from a classic film noir more than any of Adams’ other recent work. It’s not poorly done. But it’s kind of appalling that in 2009 in a big new commission for the orchestra’s new music director Adams’ can’t come up with anything more to say musically about Los Angeles than what you’d get from watching Chinatown. Is this really all there is to say about L.A. right now?

Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic at the 2009 Opening Night Gala
Photo: mine 2009

Dudamel and the orchestra seemed terribly uncertain and under-rehearsed throughout the Adams’ piece. (I guess eight days isn't quite enough to rehearse two major symphonies and two world premieres. Who knew?) And possible reasons why became clearer once he had started the other work on the evening’s program, Mahler’s First Symphony. Clearly Dudamel and the players had spent a lot of time over the last eight days not devoted to press conferences and photo shoots working very hard on the Mahler. And by that I mean it sounded immensely laborious. Dudamel went out of his way to milk every moment and sound out of the symphony draining it of any sense of whimsy or effortlessness. He can produced exciting crescendos, but he’s going to bust your ass through every moment to get there. This isn’t really a surprise in that Dudamel has already proven his penchant for histrionic, overwrought Mahler here in the past, and the Gala was no different. More bruising than exciting, this was Mahler for those who don’t like much subtlety interfering with their music. But maybe I'm wrong. The performance was videotaped so watch it yourself when the Gala airs on PBS October 21st and judge for yourself.

The evening concluded with a big standing ovation and quite a bit of large silver and purple confetti raining down on the audience. It was not a spectacular concert by any measure. But Dudamel is young and any relationship between a great orchestra and a conductor is going to take time to develop. It was true of Salonen, and such is likely the case with his predecessor. For now, the aisles have been swept and the leftover champagne has been boxed up. Hopefully some of the unnecessary focus on L.A.’s new maestro will cool off and maybe he’ll get the chance to actually develop into what the LA Philharmonic’s own press materials claim that he already is. And that will only take place over many evenings where Dudamel and the orchestra get to do what they do best - just make music.

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Comments:

Well said; I agree whole-heartedly.

Also spotted in the audience: Tom Adès, looking rather bored through the Mahler, which seems about right.
Bravo, brave review. I watched it on the Arte Live web stream. Keeping in mind that I didn't have the greatest headphones, and with what were clearly transmission artifacts, and MacBook sound, lack of time and rehearsal and development were my primary thoughts. The NY times talked about lack of virtuosity, and I wonder if that will be part of the development. Thanks again.
Yes. I think you're the only person who dares to say anything counter to all the hype--without sounding like sour grapes. And the Mahler did sound plodding and lifeless.
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