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The Wrong of Spring

October 01, 2012

 
The Joffrey Ballet's 1987 production of The Rite of Spring used the original sets, costumes, and choreography from the 1913 production. Photo by Herb Migdoll
The Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Gustavo Dudamel returned to their winter home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this very hot weekend to open up the 2012/2013 season. I’ve always found these initial performances of the fall season a little unsteady over the years. There’s something about the move that while relieving in the acoustic sense, still feels unsettled like everyone is getting back to the way things ideally should be with the better programming and better sound that audiences have been starving for all summer. This year was no exception, but it was a particularly unsatisfactory weekend for Dudamel and the Philharmonic. In fact, this weekend’s show, which I caught on Sunday, may have been the worst single performance I’ve heard him and the orchestra give together over his musically erratic, artistically lackluster tenure as music director here in L.A.

Of course, part of the reason for this may have been the works programmed for the occasion, which included Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, a work that served as the calling card for the orchestra under former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, and one they recorded together to some acclaim. Those very familiar interpretations were well known to virtually all regular members of the L.A. Philharmonic’s regular audience. And certainly a different interpretive style is natural and to be expected. But Dudamel’s take on this landmark of the 20th Century fell short in virtually every way imaginable. Gone was the percussive, rhythmic dance sense of the piece. Gone was the brisk, ferocious aggressiveness grabbing at your throat and the sharp edged clarity and uniformity cultivated by the orchestra – the sound that in part had catapulted them to the forefront of world orchestras for their performances of 20th Century works. Instead Dudamel led the orchestra through a performance that had some animalistic qualities, but was disorganized and confused often to the point of cacophony. Gone was the sense of rhythm and timing with Dudamel’s trademark indulgent and inexplicable tempi. The sound went in all directions, at once blunting the force of the performance and leaving one perplexed as to what the point was. This was not a Rite that sounded like the harbinger of the 20th Century, but one that was lost wandering in a disorganized sea of noise.

The rest of the evening fared little better. The show started with a lifeless and cold tour through Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant défunte. This did little to pave the way for the world premiere of a new work from longtime L.A. Philharmonic collaborator composer Steven Stucky whose 20 minute single movement Symphony rounded out the first half of the evening. The work was of a similar structure to his prior Radical Light and Silent Spring in format with contrasting material that waxes and wanes from a more subdued entrance the composer refers to as “peaceful” to contrasting moments more reflective of turmoil. The piece isn’t programmatic in any way as Stucky himself insists, but instead relies on a series of orchestra gestures execute with flair by Dudamel and the players. But it was hard to get behind the piece with much excitement when the overall feeling was that the music was somehow resting in the background of something else. Granted the work didn’t get shown in the best of lights sandwiched between two musical debacles as it was, so further listening is warranted. But in the meantime, one can only hope that as in year’s past, the show that opens the regular weekend programming of the fall season for the L.A. Phil is not the standard bearer for the year to come but a transition period from which much greater things will happen.

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Comments:

I thought the Rite was ok...just barely...but the rest of the concert bored me silly. The Ravel was particularly dull. This is my 2nd time seeing him doing Ravel & he has zero feel for it.
Here are a few highlights from other opinions available online about that same program.
From LA Times: "...when Dudamel began with shimmering quiet and an awe-struck audience let it happen, the Pavane proved a magical mood setter for Stucky's stirring new symphony. Conducting the "Rite" from memory, Dudamel offered a commanding performance, one very different from any of his predecessors. You felt the "Rite" come through the floor and the seats, you sensed a tingling atmosphere in the hall, which is as it should be in Disney. It sounded splendid."
From a reader's comment under that review: "...to me it was the most staggeringly exciting, moving, mesmerizing and downright thrilling "Rite" I have ever heard, and I have heard many. ...the music did literally seem to be coming out of the floors, the walls and the seats. It was an experience that could be called - using that overused word properly for once - awesome. The audience rose to its feet enmasse on the final note and demanded five curtain calls. Five. No one wanted to leave. It was, in a word, memorable."
From ClassicalLife: "Dudamel's approach to 'Pavane' was simplicity itself, a steady beat, distilled colors, no gilding on Ravel's lilies and just a couple of naturally occurring blooms. Call it mature. Call it understated. Call it just right. Everywhere, Dudamel's intent was manifest. He shaped Stravinsky's motivic scraps into melodic curves. He coaxed rich tone colors from the orchestra, especially the strings. He found accents in rhythmic impulses that gave them snapping momentum. It was "The Rite" as Impressionistic symphonic poem, not Modernistic abstraction, and fully orchestral, not balletic. The Philharmonic responded with impressive virtuosity and verve. Gustavo Dudamel continues to be a wonder on the podium. He is a delight to watch and, more important, a delight to listen to. What's more, he is also something of a master of the mysterious art of programming."
From AllIsYar: "...season opener by Dudamel and the LA Phil was so awesome, I had to see and hear it twice. So how did this very Salonen-like program come across in Mr. Dudamel’s hands? In a word: magnificently. Friday’s opening night concert was very good, but Sunday’s was noticeably better. In fact, Sunday was the best concert I’ve ever heard Mr. Dudamel and the LA Phil have together. The concert began with the gossamer sounds of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. It was a touching curtain raiser that perfectly set up the two “big” works on the program. Make no mistake — this is now Mr. Dudamel’s orchestra, and this was his Rite of Spring. Big moments were a bit more raucous, while quieter moments sounded more mystical and dramatic than they ever had before. There was still plenty of snap and precision left over from the Salonen days, but where the piece used to have a machine-like menace, it now had more of an organically sinister quality. The orchestra itself sounded spectacular, particularly on Sunday. All in all, it was an auspicious start to the new season."
If you have seen any other reviews online, please let me know.
Since my previous comment got lost somewhere, here again are a few highlights from other reviews of this same program.
From CultureMonster: "...when Dudamel began with shimmering quiet and an awe-struck audience let it happen, the Pavane proved a magical mood setter for Stucky's stirring new symphony. Conducting the "Rite" from memory, Dudamel offered a commanding performance, one very different from any of his predecessors. You felt the "Rite" come through the floor and the seats, you sensed a tingling atmosphere in the hall, which is as it should be in Disney. It sounded splendid." In the only comment under this, a reader wrote: "...to me it was the most staggeringly exciting, moving, mesmerizing and downright thrilling 'Rite' I have ever heard, and I have heard many. ...the music did literally seem to be coming out of the floors, the walls and the seats. It was an experience that could be called - using that overused word properly for once - awesome. The audience rose to its feet enmasse on the final note and demanded five curtain calls. Five. No one wanted to leave. It was, in a word, memorable."
From ClassicalLife: "Dudamel's approach to 'Pavane' was simplicity itself, a steady beat, distilled colors, no gilding on Ravel's lilies and just a couple of naturally occurring blooms. Call it mature. Call it understated. Call it just right. Everywhere, Dudamel's intent was manifest. He shaped Stravinsky's motivic scraps into melodic curves. He coaxed rich tone colors from the orchestra, especially the strings. He found accents in rhythmic impulses that gave them snapping momentum. It was "The Rite" as Impressionistic symphonic poem, not Modernistic abstraction, and fully orchestral, not balletic. The Philharmonic responded with impressive virtuosity and verve. Gustavo Dudamel continues to be a wonder on the podium. He is a delight to watch and, more important, a delight to listen to. What's more, he is also something of a master of the mysterious art of programming."
From AllIsYar: "...season opener by Dudamel and the LA Phil was so awesome, I had to see and hear it twice. So how did this very Salonen-like program come across in Mr. Dudamel’s hands? In a word: magnificently. Friday’s opening night concert was very good, but Sunday’s was noticeably better. In fact, Sunday was the best concert I’ve ever heard Mr. Dudamel and the LA Phil have together. The concert began with the gossamer sounds of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. It was a touching curtain raiser that perfectly set up the two “big” works on the program. Make no mistake — this is now Mr. Dudamel’s orchestra, and this was his Rite of Spring. Big moments were a bit more raucous, while quieter moments sounded more mystical and dramatic than they ever had before. There was still plenty of snap and precision left over from the Salonen days, but where the piece used to have a machine-like menace, it now had more of an organically sinister quality. The orchestra itself sounded spectacular, particularly on Sunday. All in all, it was an auspicious start to the new season."
If you've seen more reviews of this program, please don't hesitate to let us know about them. It is always fun to compare.


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