Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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


November 15, 2009

Dudamel, Dawn Upshaw, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

Another weekend, another sold-out crowd, another evening of mangled music from Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. If we learned anything new this weekend, it was that the Dud knows more than one way to make perfectly enjoyable music much less so. Yes, his mastery of the loud and oversized may soon be matched by his aptitude for the deliberately and tortuously paced. This weekend’s program was smart enough. It started off with Luciano Berio’s Rendering, a composition from 1990 in which the composer “finishes” the sketches of a proposed 10th symphony Schubert left unfinished at his death. Unlike a traditional completion for an unfinished work, though, Berio is uninterested in mimicking Schubert’s style. Instead he fleshes things out and fills gaps with his own ideas and music creating a hybrid piece that spans over a century of time with a dynamic dialog about structure. It’s an idea he’s explored elsewhere and most notably in his brilliant completion of Puccini’s Turandot, the same version that was performed here in Los Angeles a few years ago and is also featured on a 2002 DVD recording of the opera from the Salzburg Festival. Rendering establishes a fascinating conversation between two very different musical traditions that are working together as one.

Of course, you’d never know it from Dudamel’s performance. Clearly he had a perspective and concern for shaping the Romantic phrases in the piece directly taken from Schubert. When things begin to veer into a modern idiom, the work became mushy and uncertain. Clearly Dudamel felt one side already had the upper hand in this debate. This symphonic work was paired with the two movements that exist of Schubert’s unfinished Symphony No. 8, which closed the show. The phrasing here was so slow and deliberate that life and air seem sucked out of the room. Some of the musicians struggled to find cues in the slow-motion wreckage, which only added to the problems. Saturday's crowd was significantly less enthused than any I'd seen after a Dudamel-led program since the season began - two quick rounds of applause and we're out. Sandwiched between these losing battles was the evening’s single consolation, the soprano Dawn Upshaw. She performed Berio’s Folk Songs which he originally wrote for then wife Cathy Berberian and that Upshaw recently recorded for DG. The songs fit well here offering another take on the idea of "finishing" music from another format and it's always a pleasure to see Upshaw even in the midst of such a messy program.

She, like the rest of us, will have to continue through this rough period of the Dud's growing pains. As to whether or not he's picking up anything over the course of these seemingly endless weeks of his conducting, though, is debatable. He certainly has little outside critical input. For instance, LA's most prominent music writer, the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed, is increasingly becoming little more than a shill for the L.A. Philharmonic's press department when it comes to Dudamel. Every juvenile excess is cooed over or brushed aside with rose-perfumed praise. This gets us nowhere. If you want to get your kid off the crack pipe, you're going to have to stop forgiving every misstep and praising every charming foible. At least it's good to know that the organization is getting its three-quarters of a million dollars worth in extra PR spending. How much any of this will eventually benefit the orchestra or the audience remains to be seen.



Have to disagree with your assessment of this program. I had never heard the Rendering work before, but after the Thursday rehearsal and today's Sunday matinee performance, it is a work I would love to hear many more times. Quirky, Schubertian, and everything in between, but very nicely assembled and even better performed.
As to the 8th, Leonard Bernstein would have loved this performance in its pastoral ways - leisurely allowing all sections to really make their case, and the oboe of Arianna Ghez and flutes and horns really did just that.
A very enjoyable afternoon in the hall.
As to the applause issue, ours was no different than yours in a lack of enthusiasm, meaning three bows, and gone. But do you think it might be the nature of the closure of the 8th, on a very solemn note?
Just asking!
Probably. I suspect it was abetted by the fact that the audiences these days are still heavily populated with newbies eager to see what all the fuss in the press is. It's easy to keep them happy with the upbeat and easy access. Whether or not Dudamel will sell them on anything more challenging than this (or have them engaged on a more ongoing basis) isn't clear to me.

The attention will wane and the crowds probably will as well. What we'll have at that point is the real question.
The one thing I liked about the concert more than anything was yet again the uniqueness of the programming - not your standard mail it in repertoire, and if so, in the case of the 8th, in a completely different context.
This program was the first Dudamel concert that I've seen. I'm reading the critical comments here with great interest, but I'm still "on the fence" myself. There's is no doubt that he is very different than the other conductors I've seen with the LA Phil.
I greatly enjoyed Berio's Folk Songs, and I think that Dudamel brought out rhythmic liveliness in the piece in a fantastic way. Generally, I feel he brings a rhythmic energy that is special.

With "Rendering", I noticed that the piece began loud and full, and pretty much stayed that way for 35 minutes. This is a great weakness, significantly removing the possibility for dramatic emotion. In a hall such as Disney, where the clarity of softer dynamics is miraculous, not making use of this potential does seem to be a novice mistake.

I enjoyed the "Unfinished Symphony", but this, too, was a different kind of pleasure. The orchestra sounded great to me-- very rhythmically alive. But I did notice, too, a lack of potential for dramatic emotion. The sound is a vibrant, thick sound, which feels good and I can imagine to be very accessible. But I'm not sure if it will be able to reach the depths of one's soul, like this music is meant to do.

Regarding Swed, he does seem to be more of a promo guy, than a critic. He should be analyzing the pros and cons of the clearly different approach of the new Music Director. I don't need him, or any critic, to tell me if the concert was "terrific", and only provide a "thumbs up-thumbs down" approach. What I expect is some kind of in-depth discussion of the approach that the conductor is taking. That his reviews lack an in-depth discussion of the faults of the newbie conductor is an indication that he has some kind of promotional agenda. While classical music may be in a fragile state commercially, this kind of dumbing down does not do it any service in the long run.
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