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Music review: Dudamel turns to the East

October 10, 2009 |  2:06 pm

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On the seventh day, Gustavo Dudamel did not rest.

In case you’re just tuning in (is that possible?), on Oct. 3, the 11th music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic began his tenure with a free community concert that included an exalted performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl. The world took notice.

Thursday night he opened the orchestra’s Walt Disney Concert Hall season with a star-studded gala, in which he premiered John Adams’ gripping, large-scale “City Noir” and performed Mahler’s First Symphony. The media was once more out in force.
 
Friday morning, the plasterboard party bodegas in front of Disney were gone and the G-Man (yet another nickname that Dudamel, aka the Dude, has picked up) and the orchestra, which is quickly learning what it means to have a hyper-energetic 28-year-old in charge, were rehearsing once more for that evening’s first regular concert of the season. (The program repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon.)

On this program, Dudamel replaced the new Adams score (he will repeat it during the orchestra's West Coast, Left Coast festival in November) with a radically different sort of new work, Unsuk Chin’s "Su.”  Like Thursday, he ended with the Mahler First.

Although Chin’s score had its premiere in Tokyo this summer, it was, like “City Noir,” commissioned for Dudamel’s opening week and underwritten by L.A. Philharmonic patrons. But about the only thing the Bay Area and Berlin-based Korean composers have in common is that Adams’ “Death of Klinghoffer” and Chin’s “Alice” are major Los Angeles Opera commissions that sadly have never been mounted at the Music Center.

“Su” is a concerto for a mouth organ called the sheng, which comes in Korean and Chinese varieties. In the program note Chin says that she grew up in Seoul familiar with her culture’s use of the sheng as an accompaniment instrument. But her concerto was inspired by the extroverted Chinese virtuoso, Wu Wei.  She wrote it for the Chinese instrument, but her score straddles both cultures.

Wu Wei has premiered 130 contemporary works, and his repertory includes Western avant-garde pieces, traditional Chinese music, romantic Chinese music, avant-garde Chinese music, European New Age, punk rock, jazz, fusion and a sheng arrangement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” [Update: An earlier version of this review incorrectly listed Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble as a source of Wu Wei's renown in the West.]

As Dudamel and Wu Wei walked on stage, Friday’s audience didn’t quite know what to do. The crowd wanted to give Dudamel a welcoming cheer and finally figured that was OK once he’d reached the podium. But, in fact, “Su” is all about Wu Wei, and I wish here Dudamel had taken a page from the Esa-Pekka Salonen playbook and spent a few minutes speaking with the composer before the performance and perhaps also asking Wu Wei to demonstrate his instrument.
 
The title of “Su” comes from an ancient Egyptian symbol for air, and the 18-minute score opens with the 37-pipe sheng playing a high A so quietly that the pitch seems like it had always been in the air but could only be heard once we begin paying attention. For the first few minutes, chords swelled in sheng and orchestra, with a large battery of exotic percussion (including the crumpling of silk paper) adding texture.
 
At around the five-minute mark, the sheng started to hiccup nervously. The orchestra reacted with unsettled sliding tones. A short orchestral climax quickly faded to inaudibility, setting the stage for the real sheng shenanigans. Suddenly Wu Wei became a spectacular rhythm machine.

Last weekend, Dudamel had told the Bowl audience his America knows no North, no South, no Central. In the second half of “Su,” Chin and Wu Wei extended that to a world with no East and no West. This was an adoration of rhythm tapping into a universal collective unconscious.
 
The collective unconscious didn’t stop there. Chin said at a pre-concert talk that when composing her concerto she did not know it would be paired with Mahler’s First Symphony. “Su” ends, where it began, on A, this time a low note played by the basses. That same A, and the same shimmering ambiance of “Su's” opening, is Mahler’s opening. The connection proved uncanny.

Thursday’s performance of the symphony had been tense, what with the pressure of the occasion and pesky video cameras on stage practically poking the players' noses. Friday, the orchestra sounded back to something closer to normal and Dudamel’s magical-realist Mahler worked much better.

If anything, Dudamel exaggerated more this time and the performance was almost five minutes slower than the 55-minute one the night before. And for all the marvelous moments in the first three movements, the new music director didn’t always get away with multi-cultural murder. Viennese sugar married to mariachi-inflected trumpets in the slow movement is still of the shotgun variety.

The last movement, however, began in astonishing hair-raising tumult and ended in total hats-off triumph. Dudamel did give a bit too much too early as he often does, but the sheer intensity was astonishing.

The conductor's musical growing pains are far from over. He will make many mistakes over the next few years. But in the Finale of Friday’s Mahler, Dudamel missed no tricks and invented quite a few new ones. We’re in for a quite a ride.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday. Pre-concert talks one hour before. Limited ticket availability, call (323) 850-2000.

Related stories:

Music review: L.A. Phil embraces a new generation with Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel at Disney Hall: What did the critics think?

Photo: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the premiere of Unsuk Chin's "Su" Friday night with sheng soloist Wu Wei. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.


 

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