Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Make It Last Forever

May 07, 2011

Leonidas Kavakos Photo: Yannis Bournias

This weekend is the start of a whole month of the music at Brahms with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under its current music director Gustavo Dudamel. The series goes by the obtuse moniker of “Brahms Unbound,” and pairs Brahms' own masterworks with more recent compositions to imply apparent connections between the two in some cases. This weekend's program, for instance, featured Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 paired with a Dutilleux Violin Concerto, L’Arbre des sognes, played by Leonidas Kavakos. Yet, following the decidedly rocky results of this first program under the predictably uneven Dudamel, the series might better be called “Brahms Unbearable.” Two seasons into his Los Angeles tenure, what Dudamel had in store for the Brahms’ Symphony, which anchored the evening, should be no surprise to anyone paying attention: tempos so slow that they defied logic, stressful overworking of the smallest details, and a complete lack of pacing and overarching vision for the performance. It was an arduous though not always unpleasant listen. There was good news. The strings were richer and more lustrous sounding than you could imagine at times. Big crescendos got the rise out of players and audience that they deserved. But much was sacrificed to achieve these effects. The first two movements would periodically grind to a near halt. Granted, such an arrest was a blissful promise the audience was denied as Dudamel dove into another moment or passage like he was desperately rummaging around a junk drawer looking for some vital key. If he found what he was looking for, it was anyone’s guess. Granted there are critics in this town that will attempt to convince you that this glacial approach is a youthful exuberance intent on savoring every musical moment. But don’t believe the hype. Sometimes slow is just slow.

The preceding part of the evening was far more successful. Following a full-bodied turn of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture came the real highlight of the night, Dutilleux’ 1985 L’Arbre des Sognes which was being played here in Los Angeles for the first time. This seamless four movement violin concerto was played by Leonidas Kavakos and is marked by a sort of nervous energy that eschews long lyrical lines for taut punctuated showers of sound. There are no pauses between the movements, which has an organic feel as if the piece were regenerating itself, growing and changing as it went along. Dutilleux did not intend the work to be a platform for showboating, and the integration between Kavakos and the orchestra was tightly integrated. The performance struck me as having a certain fragility or brittleness that suited it well. One could argue that it was a decidedly un-Brahmsian approach and the concerto provided a nice contrast to the histrionics of the rest of the evening. The shows are heavily sold both for this weekend and the rest of the month. So if you've got a ticket and you like your Brahms stretched out to fill up the maximum time possible, you're going to love this.



"Brahms Unbearable" is pretty good (and accurate), but we were thinking "Brahms Unglued (Orchestra UnHinged - Conductor UnAble)". A lot of slop on that stage Friday night - what a shame.
"Two seasons into his Los Angeles tenure, what Dudamel had in store for the Brahms’ Symphony, which anchored the evening, should be no surprise to anyone paying attention"

Brian, the only thing that is no surprise is that you have posted another review in which you bash Dudamel. I even commented to MarK something to that effect after Thursday's concert well in advance of your blog. Why do you continue to attend his concerts if you know going in you're going to hate them? Save the seat for someone who will probably enjoy it much more than you will, or at least someone with an open mind.

Gustavo is trying to take the orchestra in a very different direction than his predecessor, and that is going to take some time. You make the mistake in assuming that he is happy with the results he is getting, judging him on what you believe is his best. This is a work in progress, and I can assure you that he is decidedly not satisfied with where the orchestra is right now, but realizes that change is not going to happen overnight. You are comparing him to conductors that are represented by what they accomplished over the span of their careers - Gustavo at 50 will be quite a bit different than Gustavo at 30. He is tremendously talented and very passionate about what he does, and he has done a lot to promote orchestral music to a generation of people that, prior to him, felt completely disenfranchised when it came to classical music. That can only be good for the future of orchestral music in this country. I don't know if you've looked around, but orchestras are really struggling elsewhere; here, the audiences have been big and enthusiastic (if you discount the Adès festival a few weeks ago).

I'm sorry if his tempi are not what you are accustomed to. That's the beautiful thing about live music - each concert is a unique, hand-made creation. Why would you want everything to sound like your CD at home, exactly the same, predictable, "reliable"? For someone who espouses a love of new music, you seem very reticent to accept a new way of doing old music.

Nobody pleases everybody...
Hello MrC

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I’d like to respond to some of the questions you raise. First as to why I continue to attend Dudamel-led LA Philharmonic concerts. I am interested in having an awareness of and commenting on the direction of the orchestra from the perspective of a listener. I don’t feel it is right for me to comment on something I haven’t seen or heard. So pleasant or not, having a blow-by-blow view of this developing relationship seems necessary to me if I want an informed opinion.

I appreciate that Dudamel brings a different set of priorities and interests to the orchestra and that the entire project is a work in progress. My criticism (over the course of all my writing on this topic) is that this is the wrong direction and the wrong set of priorities for this orchestra at this time in its history. Yes, bringing younger, disenfranchised audiences into the classical music fold is a noble cause. But I would argue that there is only so much barn-burning or detailed insight to be had at this point in the same old tried and true 19th century repertory Mr. Dudamel seems to favor above all. (Furthermore, it is unclear to me that such an approach will reinvent the classical music audience or experience, SBYO or no.) Fast or slow, detailed or big-picture oriented, this has all been done before in many places, by many others and with far fewer growing pains. It is not a dissimilar project, I would argue, to what Maestro Rattle did with the City of Birmingham orchestra a few decades ago. Of course the LA Phil of a few years ago is not equivalent to Birmingham when Rattle took over, but that is precisely the point. What I loved about the LA Philharmonic in the past was not whether or not it sounded like familiar recordings. It was that the orchestra redefined the role of a contemporary orchestra overall and at the same time, recast the audience as well. I continue to fail to see what Dudamel offers that is new in the broader sense. Yes, it may be new to L.A. and it may be a place and a musicality that the orchestra hasn’t had before. But these changes will not continue to distinguish the orchestra on a global and historical scale in the manner that the orchestra has enjoyed in the recent past.

As for the recording issue. As it turns out, I’m not intimately familiar enough with the historically available recordings to speak meaningfully at any length of whether or not tempi or other issues wildly diverge from any particular predecessors. I am told by others that the slow pacing of this weekend’s shows is not divergent from some widely familiar recordings under Klemperer and Berstein. However, I am not concerned about this and agree that the unique nature of a live performance is paramount. My criticism of things being to slow is not to say that it isn’t what I expect, as much as it is to say that it isn’t pleasant to listen to on its own terms. Slow should not seem labored, and that remains an elusive quality for Dudamel at this time and place, in my opinion.
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