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Dudamel climbs the mountain

December 5, 2008 | 12:55 pm

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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

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