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Review: A Dudamel jubilee at Disney Hall

November 25, 2008 | 12:33 pm


Monday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a bass player from the Israel Philharmonic stepped forward to say a few words to the audience about Leonard Bernstein’s Concerto for Orchestra.  Hearing a new piece for the first time can be difficult, he said about one of Bernstein’s significant last works, which had its premiere in Tel Aviv in 1989, the year before the composer died.  “But this isn’t just any new piece,” he noted. “It’s about us.” The italics are mine, but you get the point.

The us -- the orchestra, that is, which was on the last day of its American tour under Gustavo Dudamel -– is “undisciplined,” “unpredictable” and “noisy,” the player had said. But also “profound.” I would add proud and qualify profound to the times when conditions are exactly right.

The conditions were right with Bernstein, with whom the orchestra enjoyed a close and long (if inevitably stormy) love affair. And now they are right with Dudamel, who has been a regular guest in Tel Aviv for the last three years. The Concerto for Orchestra represents Bernstein’s dying thoughts about his religion and Israel. Dudamel is not Jewish, but Monday he was. His searing, joyful, haunted, innately humanistic performance of an unjustly neglected and misunderstood work uncannily captured Bernstein’s spirit.

Concerto for Orchestra began as a two-movement work, “Jubilee Games,” written to celebrate the Israel Philharmonic’s 50th anniversary in 1986. Later Bernstein added a “Benediction,” based on his own text, for baritone and orchestra that he had written for the 1986 opening of Carnegie Hall after its renovation. Finally, he added a set of variations and had his four-movement score.

There is a lot of Lenny in this piece. The first movement is the freest, wildest thing he ever wrote. The orchestra shouts numbers in Hebrew. The brass, never one of the orchestra’s glories, is let loose, freely imitating the ram’s horn, or shofar, that sounds at the Jewish new year’s service. The orchestra is free to choose pitches, and at one point even the conductor is asked to improvise. A recording of the orchestra is played against itself during a huge brass chorale. Through it all, Bernstein finds dozens of ways to structure things, employing number games and hidden biblical allusions.

The second movement is a series of variations on a moving theme for pairs of players. Bernstein takes his inspiration from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, but he adds a particularly Israeli twist -– kibitzers from the orchestra pipe in now and then with their little musical wisecracks. “Diaspora Dances” is a series of joyous Hasidic dances (and the orchestra just happens to have two Hasidic percussionists).  The “Benediction” at the end is Bernstein’s prayer. The baritone, Monday, was on tape, and might have been Bernstein’s own voice from the beyond giving his blessing.

The Concerto is not without anger and under it all is a political subtext. “What has happened to my Israel?” Bernstein asked on his last trip in 1989 for the premiere of the work. “They are burning books again,” he said.

Dudamel_concert_2 Dudamel had a lot on his hands leading the querulous orchestra in querulous, spiritually and politically charged music. His approach was not so much to make everything mean something but simply to matter. The orchestra here was proud and profound.

The program began with Bernstein’s “Halil,” written in 1981 in memory of a 19-year-old Israeli flutist killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The 15-minute score fights Bernstein’s own battles between modernism and his more traditionally tuneful and sentimental soul. The flute’s main melody is one for the ages. Eyal Ein-Habar was the brilliant soloist.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was the big piece after intermission, and Dudamel amplified every phrase.  It was a stirring performance, with the level of excitement high from beginning to end.  He did not emphasize Tchaikovsky’s exquisite suffering, so close to Bernstein’s heart, but, instead, took every pitch Tchaikovsky threw at him and hit it out of the ballpark.

The Israelis have a dark tone they can’t completely discard, but they blared as though their lives depended on it and brought the house down.  Then, as a final encore – following the Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” – “Tico Tico.” Carmen Miranda joined Bernstein’s spirit in the strangest jubilee game of them all.  Watching the percussion try to keep step with Dudamel was a show in itself.

-- Mark Swed

Photos by Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times