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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel under the Green Umbrella for the first time

May 5, 2010 |  3:30 pm
Green um
The green umbrellas were lowered Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. No longer floating from the rafters as they usually do for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Ensemble programs, they were this time planted on the stage and seemed like handsome, stately reminders of the large shadows cast over Gustavo Dudamel’s first Green Umbrella concert.

The most obvious shadow was that of the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who made history with the innovative new music series time and again. He will continue to, even without further involvement. The evening’s two premieres were the first pieces underwritten by the orchestra’s Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund, established in honor of its former music director. 

The other shadow was that of music critic Alan Rich, who died on April 23 and to whom the program was dedicated in recognition of his influential championing of the orchestra’s new music mission. My curmudgeonly colleague would have expected no less, although that would have never stopped him from picking a deserving bone or two about the program.

Logically enough, Dudamel placed his Green Umbrella debut under the larger umbrella of his current Philharmonic festival, Americas and Americans. The premieres he conducted were Derek Bermel’s lightweight but exceptionally agreeable “Canzonas Americanas,” a New York composer on a tour of Buenos Aires, and Esteban Benzecry’s “Fantasia Mastay,” a bold Argentine composer with a toe intriguingly dipped in the waters of French Modernism.

Both works were for good-sized chamber ensembles. The composers used unusual instruments or usual instruments in unusual ways, and peppered their scores with Latin rhythms and sonorities. Dudamel’s conducting was infectious.

But given the exceptionally high value of programming territory under these lime limelights, a startling amount of the program Tuesday was turned over to Andrew McKenna Lee. A guitarist with an impressive tone and technique, he opened the evening with his own solo “Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach.” These refractions fit the guitar like a glove, but then Spanish guitar clichés always do. The refracting went on far too long.

The audience appeared divided about Lee. He received a standing ovation from some, but when he reappeared after intermission to play Leo Brouwer’s middling Sonata, someone complained, “Not him again.” Julian Bream, for whom the Cuban-tinged score (with irony-free nods to Beethoven and Scriabin) was written in 1990, found sweetness in Brouwer. Lee did not.

Also on the program was Andrew Norman’s “Gran Turismo,” refracted Baroque by way of a video game, which was written in 2003 when the composer was a student at USC. Eight violinists go at it for eight minutes, as if playing Vivaldi on speed. The piece announced a young composer to watch, and it has had many performances, including on the Monday Evening Concerts series. Norman, now 30, is a rising talent with many commissions. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic have asked for something.

Dudamel took to “Gran Turismo,” and seriously competitive Philharmonic violinists nailed it. But a progress report on a promising composer, not juvenilia, was wanting. Norman has a Green Umbrella commission for next year, and “Gran Turismo” Tuesday was apparently a warm-up lap.

To prepare for “Canzonas Americanas,” Bermel spent a month in Argentina’s capital city soaking up the atmosphere. His musical guidebook was by Charles Ives and William Bolcom. Bermel threw styles and genres around with abandon -- and considerable skill.

He mentions in his program note Gershwin, Copland, Ellington, Gillespie, salsa, Pixinguinha’s choros, funk, Monk and Eddie Palmieri, to say nothing of a slight Bulgarian inflection. To that I would add Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” A nod to Beethoven's Fifth was the one nod too many.

Stylistic segues were by the second and split-second, and the concoction was mostly a lot of fun. The last of the score’s four movements was a sensual song for the jazz singer Luciana Souza. Unlike Lee, her appearance was too brief.

Although Bermel and Benzecry were on hand for their premieres, they did not, as used to be the Green Umbrella tradition, explain their music (Norman was the only composer interviewed at the pre-concert talk). In Benzecry’s case, the less said, probably the better, given his overly descriptive program note about an Inca tribe.

But he produced good, old-fashioned weird new music, full of unexpected sounds and unexpectedly insinuating rhythms. Like Bermel, he is eclectic, but he picks and chooses from a variety of progressive and traditional currents, both Latin American and European and puts everything together in an original and sophisticated fashion. For a quarter-century, Green Umbrella has served as a news outlet for new music, a place for discovery. Benzecry fit right in.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Los Angeles Philharmonic violinists in Andrew Norman's "Gran Turismo" Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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