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Lionel Bringuier finishes for an injured Gustavo Dudamel at the L.A. Philharmonic [Updated]

May 7, 2010 |  2:01 pm
Lionel Gustavo Dudamel is an athletic conductor and athletes get hurt. Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, while conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and readying the orchestra for a high-profile national tour, Dudamel lunged energetically early in the last movement of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto and pulled a muscle in his neck.

Philharmonic President Deborah Borda said that the 28-year-old Venezuelan music director heard a loud pop and lost sensation on one side. He managed to pump out enough endorphins to keep up a fiery performance, but he did not look himself at the curtain call. Most notably, he did not hug cellist Alisa Weilerstein, as he might have after her passionate performance, but that could have also been interpreted as a gracious gesture meant to draw attention to his soloist.

Backstage, Dudamel was described as being in great pain but insisting nonetheless on conducting Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (“Pathetique”) after intermission. Instead, he was bundled off to the hospital. Tests revealed a muscle pull, and doctors cleared him to conduct the next run of the program Friday morning.

For Thursday’s audience, though, the evening proved a fascinating study in contrasts. The Philharmonic's  associate conductor, Lionel Bringuier, jumped in with a sizzling performance of the “Pathetique” that was radically different in sound and character than what would have been expected from Dudamel. But for the Philharmonic, this was far from the bookend planned to end its new music director’s news-making first season.

Dudamel’s opening-night October gala, televised through much of the civilized world and released on DVD, paired the premiere of John Adams’ “City Noir” and Mahler’s First Symphony. The home season finale was to have been another large-scale symphony from another Left Coaster -- Stephen Hartke’s Symphony No. 4 -- followed by another popular Romantic-period symphony. As with Adams and Hartke’s symphonies, Mahler’s First (in its final form) and the “Pathetique” were composed a year apart, 1894 and 1893, respectively. [Updated: A previous version of this review erred when it said Mahler's First was composed in 1893 and Tchaikovsky's "Patherique" in 1894.]

Composers being composers, Hartke’s symphony, which will be for organ and orchestra, was not ready in time and has been postponed to next season or the season after. Replacing it with Dvorák’s Cello Concerto offered a different historical curiosity, given that Dvorák and Tchaikovsky were contemporaries and the concerto was begun a year after the “Pathetique.”

Yet even that bit of history proved peculiar in the end. Dudamel tore -- unfortunately literally -- into Dvorák’s rhapsodic concerto, emphasizing rich, full sonorities and muscular rhythms. He was extroverted, soulful and bold.

Alisa Weilerstein, who is 27 and one of America’s rising classical stars, tore into Dvorák as well. And she, too, was soulful and bold, if in her own private universe, visibly transporting herself into little ecstasies. But she earns her excesses with a superb musicality and a fluidity of phrasing.

She also has, when you can hear it, a wonderful tone. You couldn't hear her all the time, however. More a chamber musician, she was often swallowed by the big orchestra, which is what really made her seem in not quite in the same realm as the orchestra.

There is little doubt that Dudamel was warming up for a Tchaikovsky performance in which he would squeeze every bit of feeling possible from a famous symphony full of exquisite suffering. That left Bringuier with the unenviable task of coming on stage after Borda announced the change and attempt, with no rehearsal, to convey his own ideas to an orchestra that had been carefully prepped by Dudamel.

The first movement opens with a mournful bassoon’s sob-like swells. Low strings sustain it. You can think of this as a window into the Russian soul if you like. Or not.

That opening was, understandably, a little tense Thursday. But for Bringuier it was also a foil for what came  later in the Allegro proper. With a whip-crack stroke, he set off in a ferocious gallop.

I don’t know, nor do I think science can tell us, how it is that certain conductors can produce a distinctive sound from an orchestra simply by standing in front of it. Suddenly, this was no longer Dudamel’s L.A. Philharmonic but Bringuier’s. The strings seemed to have less vibrato, the winds were more tart, the brass less oracular and more biting than they had been earlier that night.

This was an exciting “Pathetique,” not a sad one. Bringuier played with colors, created sharp contrasts, conducted with tremendous -- and convincing -- propulsion. He soaked up no more emotion than necessary. Once he and the orchestra settled in, he took big chances with fast tempos. The orchestra played as if on pins and needles, with the excitement and electricity of familiar music forced to sound fresh.

Bringuier saved the day.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: (top) Lionel Bringuier conducting Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall; (below) cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles/Times [Updated: an earlier version of the caption for the top photo identified the conductor as Gustavo Dudamel.].

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