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Review: Israel Philharmonic with Dudamel in O.C.

November 24, 2008 |  2:18 pm

Dude

When the Israel Philharmonic last came to Southern California, security was tight. Protesters opposed to the Israeli government picketed Walt Disney Concert Hall and one got inside, and the audience waited until bomb-sniffing dogs gave the all-clear. At one of the programs, Lorin Maazel conducted Mendelssohn’s sunny Fourth Symphony, known as the “Italian.” The mood was tense and the performance wasn’t sunny, it was merely dutiful. That was February 2007.

Sunday afternoon, the Israelis returned to Southern California, this time to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, courtesy of the Philharmonic Society. There was, again, the “Italian,” but this time no protests, no dogs. And this time, the sun shined.

Gustavo Dudamel’s back in town. His Orange County debut Sunday ushered in what will be two undoubtedly hyperactive weeks of concerts: He was concluding a tour with the Israel Philharmonic at Disney Hall on Monday and  is staying for two weeks with his future band, the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

No one attends concerts of the famously combative Israel Philharmonic hoping to experience, for a couple of hours, touchy-feely naïve concord. The most meaningful relationships the orchestra forges with conductors are in battle — and that’s not just its rehearsals. Zubin Mehta, the  orchestra’s conductor for life, and Leonard Bernstein, who is still listed on the roster as laureate conductor 18 years after his death, led concerts as missiles rained down. Dudamel had his trial by fire two years ago — a Mahler First in Haifa following a Hezbollah rocket attack. Sunday’s program contained but two standard symphonies, with Brahms’ Fourth following the Mendelssohn. Playing modern music, Israeli or otherwise, is, for these deeply conservative musicians, like pulling teeth.

Dudamel is a better dentist than most (he is also touring with two late Bernstein works, which were scheduled for Monday’s Disney program), but even he can  go only so far with such a patient. Still, the young Venezuelan now has more than 30 concerts with the band under his belt, and there is an unmistakable chemistry.

Dudamel_2

The “Italian” dazzled. It wasn’t tidy, but then again it wasn’t tidy even under Maazel’s famed micromanaging baton. Mendelssohn was 24 when he premiered the symphony in 1833, and Dudamel, at 27, is at a good age to capture the burst of high spirits in the first movement. A good dancer himself, he kicked up his heels in the folk dances of the Finale. The Andante, a re-creation of a religious pageant in Rome, stood out for its soulful string playing and the orchestra’s notoriously overachieving winds, who here proved curiously effective.

Brahms’ Fourth was an event. As in the Mendelssohn, Dudamel continually pushed forward with huge thrusts of momentum. He also gave at least a partial answer to the nagging question about how so young a conductor will handle the huge responsibility of leading great gobs of standard repertory when he takes over the L.A. Philharmonic in September. UPDATE: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that Dudamel did not observe the repeat in the first movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. In fact, the movement does not have a repeat.

I wouldn’t worry. He conducted both symphonies from memory. And in the Brahms, he was downright extravagant in his efforts to find character everywhere. His is an extraordinarily physical take on Brahms. The push and pull of the opening in the strings were lungs taking deep breaths of life. Brahms titled the third movement Allegro Giocoso. My Italian dictionary gives “merry” and “gay” as definitions of “giocoso.” Dudamel’s definition was of laughter bursting at the seams.

In the last movement, a grand passacaglia, came the rupture and the rapture. This was Brahms turned inside out. Each variation was larger than life, and larger than the one that preceded it. The players, one sensed, gave everything they had. The ensemble was far from perfect, but the sense of these musicians striving for something larger than themselves proved downright awe-inspiring.

The coda, though, didn’t achieve a breakthrough. Perhaps in his excitement, Dudamel miscalculated just how far the orchestra could go. Or maybe a point was being made that the end of the symphony is not the end of a striving that must never stop. At any rate, you can now add Brahms to the list of composers for whom Dudamel has a special feeling.

The first encore was the Intermezzo from Act III of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” which sounded rich as a mini-opera and included a sensational cello solo. The second encore was Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1, for which the stuffy orchestra threw off its shoes. Not really. But really.

-- Mark Swed

Photos: Gustavo Dudamel with the Israel Philharmonic. Credits: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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