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Music review: Dudamel turns to the East

October 10, 2009 |  2:06 pm

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.


Comments () | Archives (13)

Dudamel is inexperienced, and it showed in Friday's performance of Mahler's First. The speeds were reckless, the sound overloud, and his conducting heavy handed. He needs more years conducting world-class orchestras before he can lead the LA Philharmonic with assurance and skill.

Just a clarificiation: Wu Wei does not play with the Silk Road Ensemble. The sheng players for the Silk Road Ensemble are Wu Tong and Hu Jianbing (see www.silkroadproject.org).

I sounds like Dudamel is a bit of a risk taker. This is a much healthier path than always playing it safe, although too many risks may turn off some subscribers. Programming is a tough balancing act.

I was at the Saturday evening performance; regarding the Mahler 1:
You know those razor-sharp attacks and releases that Salonen built into the orchestra ?
They're gone now.
And that wonderful, highly polished precision and unified sound w/in sections of the orchestra ?
Gone as well.
Dudamel's dynamics seem to range from forte to triple fortissimo, and he bends tempos worse than anyone I've ever heard - I guess this is the passion everybody raves about.
All-in-all, I'd say he's taken the LA Phil from being the magnificent world-class orchestra to being a pretty good community band - and in just six months - wow.

Wow, he's been leading the Orchestra for a little more than a week and already the LA Phil Orchestra is not world class anymore?

I think someone might be over doing it a bit.

The "G-man" is truly nothing short of sensational. I've advised the less well-heeled among us (including myself) to forget the $$$ seats, check the seating chart, and select seats where Dudamel may be seen face on. He's too good a show to miss.
Regarding the "Su” score, I was taken back. To 1968. Hal had just informed Dave that he will not open the pod door, and the lead character in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey shortly thereafter travels through the wormhole and arrives in a space in time both real and unreal. Upon arrival, we are treated to a piece by Gyorgy Ligeti : Lux Aeterna. OK, so they are voices, not the sheng. Still.....

Sorry Stunned, as hard as it is to believe, Donald Bryan is right about the rather sudden and step drop in the standard of playing by the LA Phil.

I've been subscribing to the LA Phil for almost 30 years. I know the sound of the orchestra. They sounded terrible this afternoon. The playing was rough and scrappy. It was truly an ugly noise. They simply do not sound like the LA Phil I saw just a few months ago. Yes Stunned, when discipline goes slack things go to hell very quickly. Even the review for the NY Times noticed the orchestra sounded off on opening night.

I actually think Dudamel is very talented, I like much of what he did this afternoon, but must play well for me to hear what Dudamel is doing interpretively, it's not a trade off I'm willing to make. Only time will tell if he gets a handle on the quality of sound coming from the orchestra.

Give the man a chance! Don't see any of you up there doing your thing. I wasn't there, I live in Sweden, but listened at 4am on internet radio and I was proud to say, "I'm a Angelina" when at the moment there isn't to much to be proud about when it comes to LA and Calif i.e. budget and Prop 8. So thank you for Gustavo and his freshness.

Everybody calm down. The orchestra is probably just adjusting to being back at Disney after playing OUTDOORS all summer. Give it a week or two.

Yes, Cassandra, you weren't there. But I was, and so were the two strangers sitting next to me who shared my disappointment - and I am being mild compared to the young violinist who was to my left.
And, busytimmy, I've been going to the LA Phil for many years: Sloppy playing is not a result of a familiar change of venue.

I wish Dudamel great good success and hope for a quick return of the magnificent instrument the orchestra had become over the last many years. We cannot afford a rehash of the amateurish noise of the Previn years.

I thought the Philharmonic sounded very good Friday. Not at its very best but very good. I guess there's understandable concern for those who appreciated the excellence the Philharmonic achieved under Salonen. However it also seems a bit alarmist. Dudamel has guest conducted on several occasions the last couple years and the orchestra sounded great (e.g Symphonie Fantastique, Beethoven Pastoral, Strauss Alpine Symphony and 4 Last Songs, Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto). Also, the Philharmonic sometimes sounded better some nights than others under Salonen. It happens.

Perhaps the Mahler was a little under-rehearsed - after all, this week saw not one but two major premieres of new works.

I don't think it's the 1st night syndrome. I have heard Dudamel conduct before (Symphonie fantastique) and found his style very loud and very crude... not a pleasant experience. While not a fan of Salonen's either (due to his modern programming), I always enjoyed the balanced sounds of the orchestra. Under Dudamel, everything gets an exaggerated and hammed-up treatment, from slow intimate passages to volcanic ear drum-piercing ffff's ....sort of like cheap cinematic CGI effects guaranteed for Big Box Office. Maybe Dudamel is made for the Tinsel Town after all.

I was at two of the performances this weekend, on Saturday and Sunday. And frankly, I found them both thrilling. Not perfect, but thrilling. I heard beautiful things in the Mahler that I've never heard before. I get so tired of major orchestras playing perfectly -- and boringly. Give me a "scrappy" sounding band that plays with emotion any day over a zombie-like group playing impeccably.

That being said, you can definitely tell that the LA Phil players are adjusting to their new director after only a couple weeks. To be expected. Dudamel obviously wants a different sound from this orchestra than Salonen wanted. Very noticeable in the strings especially. Woodwinds too. A brighter sound, which is fine (different, but fine) that needs to be adjusted to the acoustics of the Hall. That'll come.

But again, I'll take committed emotional playing that might be a little ragged any time over impeccably played tunes that always sounds the same no matter the conductor. The latter dulls my senses; the former can give me goosebumps. I'll take the goosebumps.


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