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

October 9, 2009 |  1:59 am

Oct. 8, 2009, is not the date of a revolution in music. The day marks not even the dawn of a new era. What the Gustavo Dudamel gala Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall did mean for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, however, was an embrace of a new generation and cultural point of view, which is no small thing.

Dudamel’s first concert in the hall as the orchestra’s new music director was, of course, hoopla heaven. Movie stars materialized out of wherever it is they materialize. Grand Avenue became a South American party parish for the night. During the concert, the Disney stage was beset by video cameras, documenting the occasion for broadcast in the U.S. on PBS, and also across Europe, South America and Africa. Glittering confetti, a Disney opening night tradition, made the final ovations literally sparkle.
But for all the publicity about the new 28-year-old Venezuelan music director and the freshness he brings to a supposedly staid classical music, the most extraordinary aspect of the program itself was just how much it represented business as usual for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After 17 years under the directorship of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra had earned the trust of its audience.
No musical lollipops were on offer Thursday.  No Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming or other A-list soloist was employed to glamorize the stage. To begin the program, Dudamel walked up to the podium, acknowledged the tremendous applause with a happy smile and then fearlessly launched into the world premiere of John Adams’ 35-minute “City Noir.” 

Kr8edmnc Not only is this perhaps Adams’ most demanding symphonic work both for audience and orchestra, it was also Dudamel’s first time conducting anything by the composer. The players, however, know Adams well, and Dudamel had appointed him as the orchestra's creative chair. In a multicultural community where the Venezuelan Café Bolívar and Santa Monica’s John Adams Middle School are a block apart, this feels like a fated relationship.

Adams describes “City Noir” in his program note as a work inspired by the mysteriously dark Los Angeles of the late ‘40s and ‘50s – Raymond Chandler’s town – and by the film noir of that period. The three-movement symphony begins, as Jack Webb might have said on the LAPD radio series  “Dragnet,” with a big stew.

The first movement, titled “The City and Its Double,” is a swirling panoply of scurrying strings and winds, ominous brass chords, syncopated jazz drumming, along with, typically in Adams, syncopated everything. Melodies appear as inexplicably as a dirty blond in Philip Marlowe’s office. I sense something of Schoenberg’s L.A., as well. The title is taken from the French writer Antonin Artaud, a profound influence in the ‘50s on French composer and Adams nemesis Pierre Boulez. Go figure.

The second movement, “The Song Is for You,”  is softer and, on the surface, sweeter than the first, and jazzy. I heard hints of Gershwin in the horns after a flamboyant saxophone solo (played by Timothy McAllister). But a big, seductive and, yes, also dark trombone solo (a great turn for James Miller) gets under one’s skin.

The third movement, “Boulevard Night,” begins with gorgeous chords in the strings and winds, given tinkling accompaniment by two harps, piano and celesta (there are no electronics). This is a CinemaScope sunrise, which is followed by a dazzling trumpet solo (nailed by Donald Green). Stravinsky pops up here as well in a knockout finale.

Dudamel led everything with confidence and urgency. I can’t imagine another orchestra that could sell such a piece so effectively on the first performance. But for Dudamel, who was born in 1981, this score evokes a time as distant as Brahms’ is for some of our most senior conductors. I look forward to his growing into the work (he will repeat it in November with the orchestra) and to other conductors who might give it a little more breathing space.

The other work on the program, Mahler’s First Symphony, is a young man’s symphony. The composer began it at 24. Dudamel has conducted it often. He has found his way inside every note, and takes a listener with him. Sometimes he goes too far, which is a young man’s art as well.

At this point in his development, Dudamel's conducting is essentially gestural. He can shape a musical phrase and put energy into it so it seems to have a life of its own. He began Mahler’s symphony in a hush of irresistible shimmer. The piping up of a clarinet or flute felt as though all nature were about to wake up. The second movement had the weight of a herd of elephants dancing in perfect step. The symphony ended in a blaze of glory. There was no more need to argue with exaggerated details than to argue with delicious cake. This is temptation best indulged.

The pressure was great for the orchestra, and that may explain why the performance felt nervous. Maybe an early horn mishap slightly jinxed the brass. Or maybe Dudamel was simply asking for too much too often. My guess is that the symphony will settle down magnificently as the Mahler is repeated throughout the weekend on a program with a new work by Korean composer Unsuk Chin, replacing the Adams. 

-- Mark Swed

Photos: (top) Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic opening night gala at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night.  Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times. (bottom) Dudamel and John Adams after the premiere of Adams' "City Noir." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times



Photos: Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic

Red Carpet

Panorama: On the red carpet at Walt Disney Concert Hall


Panorama: Taking in the Dudamel concert from out of doors

Comments () | Archives (22)

Thank you Gustavo, KUSC, the wonders of interet and ALL the people who make Los Angeles the cultural capital of THE WORLD! I listened to the concert on internet radio at 4am (the Bowl concert also) and it was worth setting my alarm clock for. I hope ALL Angelinos understand how BLESSED they are to live and be a part of a city that embraces ALL forms of music with such passion! I know you will appriciate Dudamel's talent in the same fahion we have here in Sweden. We are honoured to share Gustavo Dudamel (he is condutor for the Gothenberg Phil also) with the world in the same way that Scandanavia has done with Essa Pekka Salonen. Enjoy!

Conductors are overrated. The vast bulk of orchestral music is written out note for note, tone for tone, meter for meter. Conductors really are just rehearsing the group, then starting and stopping the train on time. I think their rock star antics and thrashing about detract from the music and the instrumentalists.

Though I've really been looking forward to Dudamel, 35 minutes of John Adams sounds like torture.

Extremely proud of being Venezuelan, this guy is one of the most talented in the world, we have Miss Universe, Big leaguers baseball players and much more to offer. To those who can only say negative things of my country and those who, even being from Venezuela, are not able to recognize we still can be famous for our own achievements. BRAVO DUDAMEL !!!

I must say I am amazed - amazed at how the LA Times can't seem to stumble over itself fast enough to put gushing articles about Dudamel at the top of its website every single day for at least a week now. New conductor for the LA Phil - is it newsworthy? Sure. Should there be an article about it every single time he picks up a batton - even when its just to practice with the orchestra? Absolutely not. He's not Jesus. He's not even the Pope, but you'd never know it from the way he's being covered in the paper.

I think I agree with Mike OHara, I am a musician and come from a musician family (Not Classical). If the conductor is not actually composing the music, what is his role? Selecting the music like a Disc Jockey for people to enjoy? I am in Vienna as I post these comments, so I am immersed in classical music. After reading a few of the articles published by the Los Angeles Times on Dudamel, I am sure that he is a gifted conductor. I would like to wish Dudamel the best of luck; I will be seeing one his performances soon. I am a purist when it comes to music, I would be so delighted if he could change my mind.

We were fortunate to experience "the event". It was stereotypical LA; Tinseltown, tuxedos, cameras, and, by the way, wonderful music. It was also a warm welcome for the young phenom conductor. LA is truly fortunate.

I do not usually look forward to 21st century compositions. Adam's work was an unexpected treat. The audience received it warmly, with much more than the polite applause that is typical of a new work. The second and third movements were particularly engaging as expressed by the reviewer. The sax, trumpet and trombone solos evoked a jazz influence which is rarely incorporated effectively into "new" music.

Mahler's First was a symbolic and stirring work for evening. The conclusion of the first movement evoked enough enthusiasm for significant applause, a hint that many in attendance weren't your traditional concert audience.

The orchestra shouldn't be overlooked. We are fortunate to have a world class orchestra and they did not disappoint. As a trumpeter in a former life, I was particularly impressed with the outstanding work of the brass and wind sections of the orchestra. The Mahler had many opportunities to feature the french horn and trumpet sections and they were up to the task.

Bravo, Gustavo and the Philharmonic.

Well, 35 minutes of John Adams is heaven for me you know... :) To each their own I guess.

some great points were well made in the your review and specific ones had resonated with me. certainly i'm not as cinematically-inclined to reference all the film noir elements and their respective periods. however i did manage to lean over to my friend during a part of John Adams' piece and mention to her 'this feels like a Star Wars film noir.' it was until this morning i'd learned the piece was entitled 'City Noir' and i felt it really did encapsulate LA. at the same time the piece generated such a huge applause and smiles of satisfaction, the murky, almost clandestinely-sly piece of an organized 'mess' (as my friend defined it) still appealed to the irony i'd felt connecting with the spirits of this grand sprawled city.

the second Mahler symphony felt too cookie-cutter for me, but perhaps it had to be to appease those in the audience who might not have appreciated the more modern perspective of the previous piece.

yes, the overall performance seemed a bit jittery because of all the hype. and the familiarity of Mahler's work might have been better served to loosen up those nerves by having it performed first. i had also caught a preemptive horn somewhere in 'City Noir.' yet it still was a bravado-styled opener and audience response that reflected all the multifaceted components and innuendos of LA.

and despite the leaked pressures much props still go out to the confidence and almost child-like enthusiasm Gustavo Dudamel held, as he used his unique physicality and expressions to grab onto the orchestra and infuse in them the energy and emotion the compositions deserved.

great job everyone! bravo DUDE!

Past conductors have reflected the prestige of the Los Angeles symphonic presence and we must remember that a conductor is more than complimented by mere musicians upon the stage. The musicians make the sound which enthralls us as listeners; the conductor frames the compositions so that we can appreciate the simple nuances that make the orchestrations memorable. While we are energized by the youthful talents of our new conductor, let us not forget those who have given the time of their lives in the instruction of our musicians and the musicians themselves who give Los Angeles a resounding crescendo on the musical stage.

Dear David,
Thank you for covering the outdoor event for the Dudamel opening. Our group met you briefly, and not only were you very easy going and professional but we noticed you stayed for most of the evening...which tells us you care about the stories you blog about. I'm a new fan. Kindest Regards, Tracy Green

As a member of the listening public, I can certainly hear the difference in sound in the same orchestra from one conductor to another. As a member of the Philharmonic, my wife can certainly feel and hear the difference. She has told me several times how the only other conductors who compare to the musicality (the sound and passion and feeling and beauty that they can extract from the music and the musicians) of Dudamel are Simon Rattle and Franz Welser-Möst (Salonen's strength was his precision and ability to simplify complicated music). Saying a conductor doesn't matter is like saying a coach has no impact on the game. Most of the impact is realized during the rehearsals (or practices, for sports). So if you are skeptical of the importance of a conductor, visit a rehearsal sometime to see his influence. While I am sad to see Salonen go, I am also happy for the wonderful musical future the Phil has. Lucky us!

Thank you GT for your comment regarding the musicians. If it were not for the extraordinary talent of the LA Phil musicians there would be no need for a conductor. The musicians performance is truly what "enthralls us as listeners"!

Thank you KUSC and NPR Music for your efforts in covering the gala; technologically speaking ... the next best thing to being there.

Of the two works, the Adams was brilliantly performed, once again affirming The L.A. Phil's strength as one the world's best Orchestras in the presentation of contemporary music.

The NPR chat raved about the new direction of Mr. Adams' latest composition. Truly an exciting premiere of "City Noir"!

Agree with the reviewer that Mr. Dudamel's fresh take of the Mahler 1st was a young man's view; felt the use of rubato in the Landler movement a bit excessive, detracting from the Austrian dance-like nature of the movement. Repeated experiences with the music will refine his already exciting interpretation of this great work. The take on the "Bruder Martin" theme to open the third movement and the Jewish Klezmer themes were spot on, capturing the ethnic roots of that music. The one thing that can be said is that Mr. Dudamel's Mahler interpretation is charged with enthusiasm.

The hype is deserved; Los Angeles has a great young talent as its Music Director and I look forward to seeing and hearing more broadcasts of this new, exciting Classical Music collaboration with Gustavo Dudamel, John Adams and LAPO. Great premiere on many levels!

Mr Swed has been doing an excellent job in his reviews of Mr. Dudamel. I think he is striking the right tone - not having to endorse everything he does but at the same time not needing to nitpick when we have someone as brilliant and promising and captivating as our new music director. The high points - the expressiveness, the vitality, the awareness of so much alive within the music - far outweighs any differences we may have on differences of interpretation or choice of tempo. When the journey seems so promising, so inviting, who cares about having our perfection right now? All of us will find a symphony where we prefer someone else's performance or interpretation to one of his. What's wonderful is that the discussion matters. Right here, right now, in Los Angeles. Because he arrives at a time when a brilliant young man can make this music matter - a time when our previous Director, Mr Salonen, has helped take our Philharmonic to a dynamic and creative stage.

I am thankful for the extensive coverage the Times is giving to Dudamel's arrival. Some are bewildered by it but what's the harm? Dudamel's appointment made news in many, many places around the world. It has made Los Angeles the center of attention for the symphonic world. We should feel free with our enthusiasm. Perhaps it will turn out that this was not a revolutionary moment in time but what does it matter if, instead of revolution, it should turn out to be "merely" a moment of renewal instead for an art form we believe in and deeply care about.

In the age of Barak Obama, and when the media wears its biases on its sleeve, why should anyone be surprised about the LA Times' almost cult-like adoration of Gustavo Dudamel? Personally, I hope Dudamel succeeds and that his meteoric rise is not a mere symptom of our culture's fixation on youth. Passion and charisma--surely classical music needs these in a new generation of conductors. But it also needs conductors who have a deep knowledge of music, artistic integrity, and the ability to lead. Too many younger conductors are concerned with passion and speed in the mistaken belief these will make the music more exciting. How wrong they are. For Dudamel, time will tell. One thing, however, is certain; listening publics will never understand the evolution of Dudamel's musicianship--failures and achievements--unless music critics have the historical knowledge of music that allows them to judge his performances against benchmark interpretations, including those of the past several generations.

I saw the concert live over the Internet via the European site ARTE – interesting since I live just a few miles away from downtown LA. Both the audio and video quality were very good, although the live mix seemed to play down the strings a bit.

I had varied feelings about Adams' "City Noir." At times the work displays some interesting orchestral colors and harmonies, but at other times it seems to go nowhere, being content to just be "nourish." Others have mentioned the connection to Gershwin and Stravinsky. Parts of it reminded me of Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra" by its use of featured solo instruments and sections. It appears to be a demanding work, but Dudamel and the Phil were up to the task.

I've previously seen (over the Internet) Dudamel conduct the Mahler First and this performance was very similar. I like nearly everything he does with the symphony with the exception of the second movement which I find too slow, especially in the opening. By the fifth measure the tempo marking is a dotted half = 66. Dudamel's tempo is closer to 58. At that speed the movement loses its dance quality and becomes somewhat lumbering.

Some posts here have questioned the importance of the conductor. While the impact of a conductor may at times be subtle, it is nonetheless critical. If you have ever witnessed a conducting competition, the point becomes immediately discernible. There are obvious differences in tempo, dynamics, and balance, but beyond these, there is an inspiring energy that great conductors are able to communicate. (For more on this, see my blog "Conductors - Do They Matter?" at http://onbeingmusical.blogspot.com/.)

All in all, I felt the debut was a wonderful success. Despite all the hype, the PR, the unattainable expectations, and the star studded audience, what emerged from Disney Hall was some excellent music making.

I listened through the webcast and encourage the LA Phil to continue this service whenever a new work is played. The benefit for the LA Phil is that it helps generate interest in new pieces. The benefit for audiences is that it helps them decide whether they want to hear the piece in the future, or for those who already have tickets (like for West Coast, Left Coast), to help them get acquainted with the work beforehand so they can better listen during the performance.

For familiar pieces like the Mahler, the benefit is much less since the piece is already familiar and the degradation in sound quality streamed over a computer's speakers versus live is too much to really judge or enjoy a performance.

I'm looking forward to hearing "City Noir". My preliminary impression is similar to others in that sometimes it's hard to discern the overall structure of Adam's pieces though he never fails to be interesting in terms of orchestral color. But the ones I like the best, like "Harmonielehre" and "Naive and Sentimental Music", have a definite overall structure. Time will tell whether "City Noir" also has one that becomes clearer with repeat listening.

what is an early horn "mishap?" the horn is the most difficult instrument and important instrument in the orchestra especially being g-d's instrument (per Mahler). Perhaps, Mr. Swed should try playing the horn and realized how unbelievably difficult the instrument is and realize that "mishaps" are quite common place and ACCEPTED even at the highest levels due to the inherent difficulty of the horn.

Don't be a crybaby, Mr. Bill who is calling himself "Williams" in the comment immediately above here. Suggesting that critics - in any field - should not be allowed to criticize unless they can do better than those they are criticizing, is simply childish. As a person who is as closely connected with the LA Phil's French horn section as anyone, Mr. Bill is obviously aware that its members are paid to play well - and paid quite handsomely, one might add, especially the Principal whom Mr. Bill probably knows best - while critics, on the other hand, are paid to criticize. The two jobs are very different and clearly defined.
Playing French horn well is certainly not easy. Nevertheless, in performances by leading symphony orchestras, noticeable "mishaps", even in the horns, are very rare. Unfortunately, the LA Phil's French horn section is still guilty of making far more frequent musical errors than any orchestra that aspires to be among the world's elite, should allow.

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