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Dudamel tackles Verdi's Requiem

November 6, 2009 |  3:00 pm

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Gustavo Dudamel is back in town, and Thursday night he conducted a magnificently theatrical performance of Verdi’s Requiem that felt like his first real concert as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. All Los Angeles, of course, knows that last month Dudamel began his tenure with a free event at the Hollywood Bowl, and that was followed by nervous-making high-profile programs in Walt Disney Concert Hall the next week.

But now that the media feeding frenzy has somewhat died down, and he has been away for three weeks, Dudamel has returned to Disney for a month of relatively normal music making. However, relatively normal is, for this young energy source, something devilishly deep and ambitious about every program.

Nor have those three weeks since we’ve seen him been exactly uneventful. Dudamel appeared in Europe and Canada with his Simon Bolívar Youth Orchestra, was named a Chevalier of arts and letters in Paris, selected as 2010 recipient of MIT’s Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts and picked up the Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in Toronto. He also celebrated his Mahler First, recorded live at his opening L.A. Philharmonic concerts, topping the Billboard classical charts.

Expectations, thus, keep rising, and Verdi’s Requiem does not make a small statement. Moreover, this is a work to which Dudamel is relatively new. He has yet to conduct a Verdi opera, and his first Requiem performance was only last May with his Swedish orchestra, the Gothenburg Symphony.

But Thursday, Dudamel already seemed an old Verdi hand. He led the grand and intricate 90-minute score for four vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra from memory. He gave a wonderful Italianate shape to Verdi’s vocal writing. He found the source of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s radiance. He achieved remarkably expressive and vividly dramatic playing from the orchestra.

Verdi was a man of greasepaint, not God; his Requiem is not religion. Its spiritual glow is stage-lit. The dead quake or bliss out operatically. Heaven and hell are décor. But longtime L.A. Philharmonic followers can nonetheless still recall the incense of Carlo Maria Giulini’s rapturous Requiem performances around the time Dudamel, who is 28, was born.

So it was almost spooky how Dudamel managed to tap into the robust, burnished Giulini L.A. sound. He reseated the orchestra closer to the way it was in the Giulini days with the violins to his left and the violas and cellos on the right. He went for richness over detail, although the wind solos, in particular, stood out with loving immediacy.

Dudamel began and ended with a stagy stillness. But if he thought for a moment he might summon up churchly silence before letting the first notes in the cellos miraculously appear out of thin air, he was reminded of the real world in 2009. A cellphone rang. He stopped the performance, waited for silence to return, waited another 15 seconds for good measure, and repeated the magic trick flawlessly.

Many Thursday, no doubt, will remember Dudamel’s extraordinarily visceral Dies Irae, the section in which Verdi summons the wrath of God with startling bass drum and spectacular antiphonal brass. The so-called spine-tingling “chords of doom” shake up any concert hall, but Dudamel went all out and saved the county a great deal of money by providing a useful test of Disney’s seismic reinforcements.

Employing extremes in dynamic range, bringing out orchestral colors and amping up all the dramatic character in Verdi’s late, carefully constructed score, while also encouraging as much emotion as his soloist cared to exude (which was a lot), is not the easiest way to hold the score together. The fact that soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, tenor David Lomeli and bass John Relyea were loud and characterful, in a properly operatic larger-than-life way, also seemed to suit their conductor.  

Dudamel still may not have found the underlying thread to the Requiem. In Gothenburg, he led a series of inspired moments that only began to merge into a whole by the last of the three performances. But he’s gotten considerably closer to the score’s essence in an original way in a very short period of time. The 90 minutes flew by, an ebbing and flowing of time and feeling that felt altogether natural.

The Requiem ended as it began -- with prolonged silence. In Gothenburg Dudamel explored just how long he could keep an excited crowd quiet, once ending with what seemed like a good chunk of John Cage’s silent piece, “4’33”. In Disney, Dudamel slowly lowered his hands for half a minute. That, like nearly everything else in the Requiem, felt right. It’s nice to know that Dudamel’s hardly resting on last month’s laurels.

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

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Verdi's Requiem Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times.

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