« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Critic's Notebook: Dudamel's final L.A. Philharmonic tour concert

May 23, 2010 |  7:23 pm


What began as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Eat Your Heart Out” tour wound up, the orchestra’s president Deborah Borda joked Saturday night at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, the “Schadenfreude” tour. She was referring to the drubbing by critics the orchestra had received in several cities across the country in its first tour with its new music director, Gustavo Dudamel.

A backlash against Dudamel’s celebrity (“60 Minutes” caught up with him once more the previous Sunday) had been expected. It stung, but there were compensations. The halls have been alive with the sound of Dudamania.

This final concert Saturday night began with John Adams’ dense, jumpy, jazzy, hyperactive yet moody “City Noir,” written for the orchestra and Dudamel, and played here with a robust cockiness. Mahler’s First Symphony after intermission, given brazenly extravagant character, was bigger than life.

The laws of musical thermodynamics prescribe that the energy in excessively active musicians on stage transfers to the passive audience, assuming there are no heat sinks in the way. There were, this night, none. The energy in the room, after the jubilant final measures of Mahler, was euphoric. According to the decibel meter app on my cellphone, the applause noise level had reached the danger zone.

Even so, energy is the only measure. One common complaint among the critics (including after the orchestra's first New York concert on Thursday) has been that Dudamel’s Philharmonic is not a pristine ensemble. The strings lack depth. The brass flub. Wind instruments are unable to trade off phrases so seamlessly that you can hardly tell who is playing.

GD Dudamel has been accused of thrusting Tchaikovsky and Mahler into unreasonable paroxysms of excitement. A rash inexperienced 29-year-old, he was found not to fathom the profound depths of a Mahler symphony (little matter that Mahler was around that age when he wrote his First Symphony). He was presented with the long road he must to traverse before he will be ready to convey Tchaikovsky’s exquisite suffering.

These are not invalid criticisms. But they are less about what the Philharmonic can do -- it is an incomparably versatile orchestra -- than what some listeners who know the scores expect Dudamel to do. An encore from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” Saturday sounded as though the strings had just used a new cream rinse to give the horsehairs on their bows new gorgeous full body. The brass?  They were simply amazing in “City Noir,” handling fantastically difficult syncopations while sounding spontaneous and very, very hot.

The wind solos in Mahler’s symphony were, indeed, plenty awkward, each taking on quality of a specific character. A clarinet that is all clarinet will not blend with a bassoon that is all bassoon, but they can mate, which is something very different. Dudamel has a way of intentionally throwing players off to increase the tension.

Sure enough, Dudamel’s Mahler is messy. If you have preconceptions, they probably won’t be reinforced. And that is true even if your preconceptions are based on Dudamel’s performances of the Adams and the Mahler scores from the L.A. Philharmonic gala eight months ago and available on an already out-of-date DVD.

This all boils down to whom you trust. We are at the beginning of a journey (or “joy ride,” as a New York Times headline had it). If the process, the moment, matters, hop aboard. Something will happen. But that includes likely accidents from time to time, and I can’t say they won’t be serious.

Saturday’s concert did not have a dull moment. One composer in the audience said it made her ears sing afterward. The deafening cheers made my ears ring for a long time. And all the excitement seemed too much for uptight Lincoln Center guards keeping  me and mob at bay as we tried unsuccessfully to get backstage. Classical music isn’t supposed to be like this, which, of course, is what the reviews had been saying all along.

-- Mark Swed, reporting from New York

Photos: Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic outside and inside Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday. Credit: Henny Ray Abrams / Associated Press


Critic's Notebook: Dudamel takes the L.A. Philharmonic to New York

Gustavo Dudamel concludes U.S. tour at Lincoln Center and the critics weigh in

Gustavo Dudamel, L.A. Philharmonic enter final stretch of national tour

Gustavo Dudamel: 'short' and 'chunky'?

Photos: Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic outside and inside Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday.

Comments () | Archives (15)

My first tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic included one of the most memorable concerts in my 25 years with the orchestra. We performed Mahler’s 10th at Carnegie Hall with a young, talented, but relatively inexperienced conductor. The performance was magical. The reviews were condescending and critical of the interpretation and of the young conductor. Isaac Stern who attended a rehearsal later in the week spoke to the entire orchestra. He assured us that despite what the critics had written; our performance was the best concert of the season at Carnegie. The conductor? Simon Rattle.

I find it hard to believe that all the negative criticism of the LA Phil's tour to date is simply a matter of sour grapes and inability to accept anything new on the part of the nation's rapidly dwindling print classical music critics. What has been true in LA all year appears to be true on the road as well - Dudamel doesn't yet have the musical substance to back up the hype Swed, the LA Times, and everyone else has built up around him. Despite this respectable piece of damage control, it remains to be seen just how long all the excitement will last when he isn't the next big thing anymore.

The management of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has to scrutinize each and every one of its players and determine whether they're good enough to be members of the orchestra. If the Philharmonic's decisionmakers want a group of truly indisputable first-class quality, they're going to have to cast off sentiments and big-hug friendships that may have developed through the weeks, months or certainly years, and remove musicians who are less than A-grade.

I realy don't see anything wrong with the LA Philharmonic promoting their new music director aggresively. That's is their job. But, it should not be a music critic's, and I do find mark swed, from quite a few reviews and news he wrote lately related to the matter, has lost a lot readers' respect of his intellectual integrity. In a recent piece, mark compared dudamel to the young bernstein at the same age in a way that implies that mark knew young bernstein's music performances intimately. I call on mark to anwser the following two questions; 1)how old were you (mark)in 1948 when bernstein was 30, and 2) how many of bernstein's concerts between 1948 and 1958 did you go to? I am sure that we, the readers, would love to know.

Dudamel does have substance. Enough to back up all the hype? - that I don't know, but he does have substance. And one place you might look for that is the NY Times' Anthony Tommasini and his previous reviews of Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and the NY Phil.

Tommasini is the critic who wrote the highly negative review of the Pathetique. I'm willing to accept if he didn't like it, he didn't like it. But the tone and the dismissiveness of his review is at such odds with the earlier reviews (which for some reason I seem unable to quote here.)

I'm not saying he wrote unqualified praise (neither does Mark Swed), but he offers effusive praise and writes sensitively about Dudamel's extraordinary musical gifts. Only when Dudamel comes to town with the LA Phil does that seem barely worth a mention. I don't want to accuse Tommasini of sour grapes but I think it's pretty remarkable. If I'm able to post the links, you decide for yourself.

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra/ Berlioz, Chopin, Beethoven 5th

Simón Bolívar/ Bartok Concerto for Orchestra

NY Phil/ Prokofiev 5th:

As a sometime subscriber to the LA Phil, I have avoided going to any Dudamel concerts. I go for the music, and I find a conductor's (or any performer's) extreme physicality too distracting from the music.

Add another glowing early review from the NY Times' Anthony Tommasini: the Mahler 5th with the NY Phil.


The point is that Tommasini's reviews are similar in tone to Mark Swed's. They are enthusiastic. They point to anomalies or unfamiliar approaches which may (or may not) need work on or rethinking, but the general tone is that the positive so overwhelmingly outweigh any negatives that we shouldn't be carping or looking to find fault.

Until Tommasini's last review. Then he found no compensation for "wrenching" movements out of shape. (Incidentally, his colleague Allen Kozinn wrote highly of the Adams/Mahler concert although the review was briefer and restrained in tone - as if in deference to Tommasini's earlier critique and not wanting to come across as a complete contradiction of it-- http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/arts/music/24gustavo.html?ref=music)

As for the carping from LA Times readers and concert-goers: I appreciate their interest and passion for music. It's okay to favor a different approach. They certainly deserve a great conductor, one of the consummate masters, time-tested and true.

They just don't deserve a brilliant young one at the moment of his discovery.

Dudamel is the best thing to happen to Classical music in this country since his predecessor.

The audience needs to grow up and let him grow up.

“in the moment”

That’s the key to live performance. Relish it. Whether acting on stage in “Streetcar” or playing a classical symphony, there is nothing like live performance. “In the Moment.”

After reading the various reviews of the LA Phil on tour, too many classical music critics seem to want old-school studio recording quality in a live performance. But live performance is not a studio disc, thank god. Far from it. And thank god studio recordings are almost extinct. The days of taking one movement from Monday’s morning session in the studio and another movement from Tuesday’s afternoon recording session and splicing them together for a finished “performance” on disc are hopefully long gone. Wise conductors have come to agreement that there is nothing of value to be added to classical music by artificially enhanced studio recordings.

No, what’s exciting about classical music is live performance where everyone on stage and in the audience is “in the moment,” with all that that entails. Things happen in the moment. Exciting things. Surprising things. No two live performances should be alike. If I go to hear the LA Phil playing the same program at Disney Hall on two successive nights (as I am wont to do), I am sorely disappointed if the second night’s performance is just a carbon copy of the first’s. That’s rote playing, and it’s boring. Give me the moment.

While I understand that the conductor has his/her overall interpretation of the piece installed for the weekend, please, PLEASE, give me some spontaneity. Go with the flow and take me to some different corners of the piece each night. Surprise me. Confuse me. But don’t just play the notes every night, however perfectly. And long live the Joy Ride under our current Maestro.

Too verbose, I know. I apologize.

That's precisely the point Mr. Mitnick. Doesn't the LA Phil, and its audience, deserve a full-grown artistically adult conductor to start with?

Until Tommasini's last review.

He's a homer. For example, I recall back in 2003 his struggling to praise the acoustics of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But when it came to the rather flat acoustics of the recently renovated main auditorium at the Julliard School (in his hometown of New York City) he was swooning and all aglow.

To Jeff who wrote: "Doesn't the LA Phil, and its audience, deserve a full-grown artistically adult conductor to start with?"

Yes. And Dudamel, whatever his issues may be, is far closer to that than his predecessor. I've endured years of mediocre performances from the LA Phil under Salonen in exchange for a bunch of evenings when they've broken free under other conductors - including the Dude. 17 years of self-absorbed Finnish frippery is enough. Whatever the hype machine is doing for Dudamel is the result of a LOT of practice perfected over the Salonen regime.

Yes, Dudamel has things to learn. He's 29. It won't take him until he's 50 to figure it out.

Thanks for this--I agree that excitement from the public about a classical music figure is a treasure we should embrace, even if we don't agree with every decision that figure makes.


Between Chicago and NY, it's fascinating to compare their previous reviews of Dudamel to last week's.

I'm unable to quote them or post the links (Times policy I guess) but they're worth reading. One from John von Rhein of the Chicago Trib back in April 7, 2007 (a review of the Mahler 1st) is an example. The message is strong: Dudamel is for real. He's a serious musician. The members of the Chicago Symphony rave about him and clearly admire him.

Without dwelling on the possibility of sour grapes, anyone using last week's reviews to conclude that Dudamel is unsuited to be music director should read the earlier ones. And feel encouraged to come along, enjoy the ride and see where it takes us.

As a "jaded" New Yorker who loves Mahler and Tchaikovsky, I must say that when it comes down to appreciating a performance, is it 1 or 2 critics or is it 3000 highly satisfied customers" in the hall? If customer satisfaction is any sign of success, count the NY concerts by Dudamel and the LA Phil as successes. And as for the orchestra, there is no criticism here, Some spontaneous excitement made the evening even better. It always happens - critics place people on pedestals, then cannot wait to know them down.


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.