« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Dudamel climbs the mountain

December 5, 2008 | 12:55 pm


A story John Cage liked to tell involved his teacher of Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki:  “Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains.  While studying Zen, things become confused.  After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains.

“After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, what is the difference between before and after.  He said, ‘No difference. Only the feet are a little bit off the ground.’ ”

Thursday night Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony” at Walt Disney Concert Hall.  This 50-minute tone poem is a mountain of music.  Up the Alps the composer tramps, across glades and over glaciers, from dawn to dusk, through sun and fog and storm.  Birds sing and cowbells rattle.  Wind and thunder howl and rumble. The music at the summit recalls what Strauss wrote in “Der Rosenkavalier” to evoke sexual gratification nearly attained.  Coming down from the mountain, drenched from the storm, the composer falls into a sensuous melancholy reverie, overwhelmed by Nature.

This was a monumental performance.  The mountain was the mountain.  It had been studied (Dudamel conducted from memory).  It was conquered.  At the end, Dudamel’s feet were a little bit off the ground. 

What more can be said about this 27-year-old wonder who will become the Philharmonic’s music director next year?  Los Angeles loves him, and full houses at every performance thunder approval.  The orchestra plays for him as if it has discovered a fountain of youth.  With each program he reveals something new.

Thursday, Dudamel demonstrated astonishing technical mastery.  The “Alpine” is not a great score in the sense of greatness of musical inspiration, but it is great in the sense of size and ambition.  The orchestra is enormous.  Horns are everywhere, on stage and off.  Winds, strings and percussion take up virtually every remaining inch of the stage.  The big organ gets its big moments as well.

The score has 22 sections, each a musical blog of scenery and emotions along the trail, and I think the Philharmonic would have done its audience a favor had it spelled them out in the program or offered projections.  Lights, though, were effectively dimmed at the beginning of the performance to indicate night and lowered at the end to suggest the setting sun.

Then again, maybe Strauss’ Nietzschean reverence for Nature is passé in this age of Everest tourism.  Dudamel lived his “Alpine” for the moment, and the mountain came alive in little ways and big ones.  His command of small instrumental detail was often riveting, but it was his vigor, his magnificent unleashing of magnificent forces that was the most amazing feat for a conductor so young.

Strauss was 51 when he finished orchestrating this score, and grandiosity had become a temptation.  A bland recent recording by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Mariss Jansons reveals how close to pomposity this music can become come, when the mountain becomes confused with something more spiritual.  Dudamel’s mountain was the mountain.  This month, Gramophone magazine lists the Concertgebouw as the world’s best orchestra; the Los Angeles Philharmonic came in eighth.  That survey is already out of date.

The concert began with a stunning performance of György Kurtág’s “Stele,” a 12-minute score in three parts written in 1994.  The moody Hungarian composer begins with a chord from Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” and deflates it.  Beethoven’s cry for freedom becomes a mourning for its loss.  This was the finest conducting I’ve yet witnessed from Dudamel, who subtly, magically let air out of creamy cushions of sound.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 was also on the program.  The soloist was Rudolf Buchbinder, once hailed as a paragon of the eloquent Viennese style.  He still manages to phrase with scrupulous care.  But his playing has come to resemble the embalmer’s art.

The pianist watched the orchestra, and made it look as though he were playing chamber music with the lovely woodwinds.  But his reactions were often a split second late and never sounded spontaneous.  The Adagio was slow and as pompous as Jansons' “Alpine.”

Kurtag let the air out of Beethoven because of existential angst or something like it.  But Buchbinder’s Mozart was more a flat tire, and the mountain remained off in the distance, never to be approached.  Dudamel did what he could, but his magic wand is not infallible.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $42 to $147. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

-- Mark Swed

Photo credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (7)


Thanks for putting into words what we just spent the last two hours trying to figure out. Dudamel and the orchestra were amazing tonight. My partner felt the same way as you about the Mozart, but I liked the chamber music feeling to it (very different, and nice), and wonder if Dudamel and Buchbinder set out to try to do something different. Or maybe Dudamel just helped the orchestra match Buchbinder's own sound.

No matter what, it was a truly fantastic concert. Wow, are we lucky to live in LA.

It truly was like sailing over the alps on the wings of an eagle. An absolute delight to the imagination and the senses. Dudamel's affection for his orchestra and their respect for him was clearly apparent. What a coup for Los Angeles to have this fine, young, energetic conductor in our city.

Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil -- a match made in heaven and that is where the audience was taken upon reaching the summit in Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony. The journey we took with Gustavo up and down that alpine mountain was one of the greatest musical experiences of my concert-going life. Having heard the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverien, the Berliner Philharmonie Orchestra in Berlin -- Mr. Swed is correct in the Grammaphone listing of "world's best orchestras" -- the LA Phil with Gustavo are not #8, but definitely in the TOP 3 !!! Every American who loves Classical Music will want to make to the pilgrimage to Walt Disney Concert Hall and experience this exceptional combination of talent and charisma. BRAVO Gustavo and our beloved LA Phil.

We were thrilled to hear the Alpine Symphony last Thursday -- Live for the first time. Dudamel and the LAPhil were truly magnificent....and we felt honored to be part of what will be remembered as a landmark occasion.

The exacting knowledge, command, and delivery of the score on Dudamel's part was astonishing. I can't imagine that this 27-year old has conducted that many performances of this little-performed work. Add to that, that he and the orchestra had to climb that 50-minute mountain four times in four consecutive days is herculean, to say the least.

Then, add to that, the fact that immediately following climbing the Alps four times in rapid succession, Dudamel will fly off to conduct the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in China, Korea, Japan, and Spain (with a detour to Berlin to conduct two performances of the 9th Symphony) before returning to the US to conduct four concerts each with the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic -- all of this in FIVE WEEKS -- and one wonders how long this "kid" can keep the fires burning so brightly!

As for this listener....I hope he takes great care not to burn out, for he is indeed what Simon Rattle called "A Conducting Animal!"

From my seat in terrace west on Sunday the piano was much too loud compared to the orchestra in general, and the woodwinds in particular. I know it's a piano concerto, but more to the point, a concerto for piano and orchestra. Most of the wonderful wind solos were buried by the soloist. When Gustavo comes to Chicago next month he will have a much more sensitive pianist to accompany, and the results will be much more satisfying. The Strauss could not have made a greater impression--I'm not sure about the "light-show", though. You are indeed very lucky to have this young maestro here in LA, but his prodigious talent need not resort to gimmicks. He is the future of classical music and will create a much greater audience for your fine orchestra.

To comment of David Anderson.

Do you mean Stephen Hough as a soloist? Well, you cannot compare Buchbinder and Hough. Buchbinder is a natural talent, a true musician. Hough is just a good piano player. I would never enjoy his way of playing which shows a hard work behind, because I don't want to hear the work, I want to hear music. And music is in each Buchbinder's performance.


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.