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Music review: Dudamel conducts Schubert and Berio

November 13, 2009 |  1:49 pm

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Thursday night, Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new music director, ended the second program of his current monthlong residency at Walt Disney Concert Hall with an extravagantly “finished” performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. This beloved two-movement torso sounded so sonically fleshy and alive that it would have been hard to imagine fleshing it out further with realizations of the final two movements Schubert never bothered, for mysterious reasons, to complete.

But then – if you accept the notion that no score is done until performed, no performance is definitive and the audience completes the work – all music is unfinished, even if some pieces are more unfinished than others. And Dudamel’s fascinating program was designed to show just how slippery this whole concept of finishing is in music. 

The evening began with the late Italian composer Luciano Berio’s rendering of Schubert’s 10th Symphony, which the earlier composer left in bits and pieces when he died. That was followed by Berio’s “Folk Songs,” a modernist refinishing of traditional songs from around the world, here further finished in unique interpretations by soprano Dawn Upshaw.

The Berio/Schubert “Rendering” is a work of genius. Or more accurately, it is the work of two geniuses. Rather than try to piece together what Schubert would have done had he lived to fashion his 10th, Berio orchestrated Schubert’s sketches in the manner of the “Unfinished” Symphony. He then wrote music in his own style to connect the chunks.

Berio likened the process to restoring historic frescoes. The original material is touched-up but empty patches are left empty. In the case of “Rendering,” that empty space exists as sonic concrete, so that we know exactly what Schubert left behind.

But Berio also employed cinematic devices by creating startling Schubertian dissolves as he traveled from one sketch to the next. Schubert falls away and reassembles as if in a dream. Chords drift from 19th century harmonies to those of the late 20th century. Firm melodies and rhythms suddenly turn elastic. Ultimately, this deliciously disorienting work seems less a piecing together of Schubert fragments than a mystical floating between his world and ours.

Dudamel’s performance was terrific. Schubert had been heading in new harmonic and contrapuntal directions when he died at 31 in 1828. The sketches supply great tunes, exciting rhythmic passages and an orchestral exuberance, all of which Dudamel made arrestingly vivid. He also supplied a pulsating vibrancy to Berio’s sonically juicy passages, creating the effect of Schubert penetrating Berio and Berio penetrating Schubert, without a listener always being able to tell who was doing what to whom.

“Folk Songs” throws more monkey wrenches into the idea of musical completion and historicity. Written in 1964 when Berio was teaching at Mills College in Oakland, it shook up the European avant-garde establishment by applying far-out instrumental techniques to an international collection of supposedly traditional songs (the two Italian numbers were, in fact, Berio originals). In 1973, the composer expanded the instrumentation from chamber ensemble to small orchestra, and conducted the U.S. premiere with the L.A. Philharmonic the following year.

The extraordinary mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, whose marriage to Berio was dissolving as he composed the score, was his tempestuous muse. At the L.A. Philharmonic premiere 35 years ago, the composer’s ex-wife was such a dramatically lusty, I’ll-show-you-buddy presence that even Berio couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her (to the considerable detriment of his conducting).

Upshaw’s emotionally intense interpretation was radically different. Where Berberian externalized, Upshaw internalized. Where Berberian strut her stuff, Upshaw communed with Berio’s wondrous instrumental sounds, which were played under Dudamel with great beauty. But given Berio’s broad appetites, I could easily see him proudly walking down the street with both seductive singers, one on each arm, and a big cigar in his mouth.

And I could also imagine the Italian composer, who died in 2003, sitting in the back of Disney Hall Thursday night, tears running down his face as Dudamel did his own “Berio” on Schubert’s “Unfinished.”  Melodies were meltingly drawn out. Syncopated accompaniments were given a sassy Berberian sway. The second movement, an Andante, lingered with sweet yet exacting sadness.

Those who worry about Dudamel’s tendency to exaggerate were given something to worry about. But for the rest of us, this was an “Unfinished” you never wanted to finish.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Friday  (a "Casual Friday" concert without "Rendering") and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Pre-concert talks one hour before. Limited ticket availability, call (323) 850-2000. www.laphil.com.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Soprano Dawn Upshaw performing Berio's "Folk Songs" with Gustavo Dudamel conducting at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night.  Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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