Dudamel's left hand is the right stuff
Lucky enough to be going to Disney Hall the next couple of weeks to see wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel back on the podium? If so, keep an eye on the young conductor’s left hand.
No, this isn't some weird fetish thing. It's a chance to focus on a key element of his technique, which is what makes him the real deal.
A quick tutorial: At the most rudimentary level, conductors use their hands to accomplish specific tasks. The right hand –- maybe using a baton, maybe not –- keeps the orchestra in time. It's the conductor basically functioning as a traffic cop. The left hand is supplementary and is used to cue sections of the orchestra and shape the dynamics of the sound, louder, softer, etc.
Most conductors of top orchestras who come our way are in their 40s or older, with thousands of performances behind them. The work of building the performances is accomplished out of our sight during rehearsals; the left-hand motions we see on the podium tend to be broad and perfunctory, acting as reminders to the orchestra: an outstretched palm, say, to tamp down the brass, or the whole hand clutched to sustain a note from the strings.
But there's no sleight of hand with the 27-year-old Dudamel.
Sunday afternoon I enjoyed a ringside view of the Orange County Philharmonic Society concert where Dudamel led the Israel Philharmonic through a program of Mendelssohn and Brahms. I was about 8 feet away, just below him, to his right, so I had a perfect sight line upward of Dudamel's profile. About 10 minutes into the performance I realized my focus was almost entirely on his left hand and the extrordinary way he employs it.
He isn't a large person, and his hands are not especially big. But his fingers are memorable because of how -- arm extended and elevated, palm down -- he splays them slightly apart. Each digit resembled an extended tendril that seemed to have, crazy as it sounds, movement independent of the rest of his hand.
Another thing -- and it might have been my angle -- is that his fourth finger appears almost as long as the middle one. During some quiet passages in the second movement of Mendelssohn's 4th, the tips of these fingers quivered slightly but frantically as he extended them out, imploring the notes to sustain. The image that came to mind was of E.T.'s tentative but inexorable reach.
This yearning quality of drawing out the dynamics of sound extended to how he used his entire left hand, always more as a seductive tool than as a cudgel. For instance, during the first movement of the Brahms 4th, the piece demands interplay with the winds leading the strings into passages. Dudamel employed a caressing gesture to coax tones from the wind section -- a motion he tappped into intermittently, especially when there was a flute or other wind tone to be had.
He was also incredibly quick with his left hand, darting his gestures to different sections of the orchestra, anticipating the passages to come (as usual, there was no sheet music in front of Dudamel).
As I left the performance it struck me that this may be the most notable leftie to come to town since Sandy Koufax took the mound for the Dodgers.
-- Christopher Smith
Top photo credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times. Others by Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times