Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy..

May 18, 2010

Photo: Andrew Eccles 2009

As you may have noticed, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is currently out of town on a two-week concert tour of the U.S. under musical director Gustavo Dudamel. Of course, there is never any let up from the L.A. Philharmonic’s tireless PR machine that is bombarding us with everything from a new segment on “60 Minutes” to profiles in American Way magazine. The group hit San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago and Nashville last week to sold-out houses and enthusiastic audiences at every stop. However, given the decidedly mixed reviews the performances have gotten so far, it seems what was billed as a "eat-your-heart-out" tour is provoking more than anticipated indigestion by people who regularly write about classical music.

The reviews have dutifully noted Dudamel’s energy and excitement and the great work he has done with young musicians. But at long last, critics have begun to notice the fact that while his conducting skills are promising, they are still highly underdeveloped, particularly with an orchestra of this caliber. This is not a surprise to me, of course, considering I’ve been saying the same things since 2007 here at outwestarts.com, but now Dudamel’s slip is beginning to show in other cities as well.

In San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman was “bewildered” by the L.A. Phil performances there:
In appearances presented Monday and Tuesday by the San Francisco Symphony as part of the Great Performers Series, Dudamel and his band offered up a head-spinning mass of puzzlements....

There were readings marked by phenomenal power and inventiveness, and others dragged down into a morass of ostentatious mannerism. At times Dudamel and the orchestra seemed utterly in sync, only to turn the page and come to grief on a simple question of ensemble or instrumental balance. The orchestra itself struggled in parts (the brass was particularly unpredictable) while excelling elsewhere (especially the strings). Where are they now? Where are they heading? Your guess is as good as mine.
Things didn’t much improve in Chicago where Andrew Patner reported in the Chicago Sun-Times on performances of Adam’s City Noir and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony,
But I’m not seeing or hearing a lot of development. His repertoire of full symphonic works remains small. In a new addition for this tour, Tchaikovsky’s B minor “Pathetique” Sixth Symphony, Op. 74, Dudamel often went more for effect than either deep or subtle understanding. As was the case even more so with the first encore, the Intermezzo from Puccini’s opera “Manon Lescaut,” too often the dynamic choices were two: loud and louder. These emphases made for a third movement march both well-paced and stirring, but not much else in the rest of the work....

Most disconcerting, though, is Dudamel’s continuing difficulty – or lack of concern? – with section balances and ensembling. An experienced conductor should be able not only to prepare and lead his own interpretation of a piece but to detect and fix problems in performance quickly and correctly. Dudamel seemed so caught up in his conception of the work that he appeared not to notice lack of dynamic and rhythmic synch, ragged patches and peculiar drops in tension after big effects.
Patner wasn’t the only windy city scribe who dared to dissent though. The Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein weighed in with significant negatives as well.
There's no question he is inordinately talented, a brilliant and inspiring podium dervish who can get an orchestra to do anything he wishes while lifting an audience out of its seats. Even so, there sometimes appears to be a disconnect between the musical ends and the means he employs to achieve them. Half-formed interpretative ideas betray a lack of musical depth. The problem is not so much one of faulty instincts as where and how he channels those instincts....

Dudamel looked to be in ecstasy on the podium, slashing the air with his baton, crouching and levitating as he drove the Russian warhorse onward. But that visual show of emotion did not translate into a particularly coherent or deeply felt reading. Pacing was erratic, balances were careless and there were noticeable lapses of tension between melodramatic effusions. Tchaikovsky's final plunge into black despair and death can be a shattering experience; not here. Only the march movement really worked.
These are only excerpts from the reviews, of course, so I’d encourage you to follow the links to read the whole thing yourself. Of course, this is only the first week of the tour, and the L.A. Phil will appear in Washington, Philadelphia and New York this week. Here’s hoping things pick up for them a bit more now that the cat is out of the bag about the hype monster created around the L.A. Phil’s new maestro.



It sounds like everyone except our local press sees "The Dud" as as Lang Lang with a baton.
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