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Music review: Dudamel takes on Bernstein and Gershwin at the Bowl

August 4, 2010 |  1:55 pm
Montero
Gustavo Dudamel has embraced the Hollywood Bowl like no Los Angeles Philharmonic music director other than, perhaps, Zubin Mehta. In his first year here, he has already conducted two of the venue's historic mainstays: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and, on Sunday night, Bizet's "Carmen."  But it was Tuesday when he entered directly into the soul of the Bowl for a program of Bernstein and Gershwin.

Ghosts of these two composer-performers have never been exorcised from the premises. A Gershwin memorial at the Bowl in 1937, a month after the 38-year-old composer died of a brain tumor, included a tearful remembrance from Schoenberg, Otto Klemperer conducting and Rabbi Edgar Magnin's over-the-top eulogy likening Gershwin to Lincoln (his music frees us from the slavery of life's drudgery). Gershwin and the Bowl have gone together ever since.

Likewise with Bernstein, whose unforgettably rhapsodic performances of his "West Side Story" Symphonic Dances and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1982 (the year after Dudamel was born) have entered Hollywood Bowl lore. These were the works with which Dudamel began Tuesday night.

Bernstein has been a particular obsession of Dudamel's. Videos of "Mambo" from "West Side Story," performed with his Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, have been YouTube hits for some time now. Last season he programmed Bernstein's rarely heard Second Symphony ("Age of Anxiety") and took it on tour. Next season he will do the same with the First ("Jeremiah"). On Thursday night at the Bowl, he turns to Bernstein's neglected Divertimento.

It was evident with "Age of Anxiety" but even more so now with "West Side Story" that Dudamel channels the late Bernstein and makes him young again. Watching Dudamel on the large Bowl video screens, I recognized many Bernstein moves, such as the cajoling facial gestures and the cocky use of hips instead of baton to convey a swaying rhythm.

But Dudamel doesn't mimic Bernstein so much as absorb him. Each number in "West Side Story" became Dudamel's story. Maybe his finger snapping was a tad cute, or "Somewhere" veered toward sentimentality. But he had the orchestra playing out of his hand and most in the audience of 14,000 glued to the monitors.

After intermission, Dudamel conducted the Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein's "On the Town" with similar flair if not the total identification with every note that he seems to feel with "West Side Story." But clearly Dudamel is destined to revive Bernstein's disregarded theater music, be it opera, ballet, musical or "Mass." I hope that's the L.A. Philharmonic's destiny as well.

As a Gershwin conductor, Dudamel is still a work in progress. That is not to say that "Rhapsody in Blue," with Gabriela Montero as soloist, didn't cook. It slithered to a properly snappy start with Michele Zukovsky's winning, whining clarinet solo. Although Dudamel opted for a large orchestra, he seemed to have a ball encouraging the players to be as raucous as members of a big band in their occasional solos. He made sure the big tune was plenty big.

But in most other matters Dudamel deferred to Montero, who brought a more restrained quality to the interpretation. This Venezuelan pianist has a rare talent for improvisation, and she has become a kind of swinging crossover phenomenon. But, in fact, she is really more a Baroque artist with a cool, crisp, collected, strong technique that makes everything she plays, whether written out or made up on the spot, sound as though Bach is the foundation.

In the "Rhapsody," she produced a kind of rhythmic sparkle well suited to jazz (Bach is, not for no reason, the classical composer most appropriated by jazz pianists). She articulated with terrific precision.    

What she lacked was Gershwin's nonchalance; she did not, as the composer did, make the solo sound easy. Bernstein, by the way, was the exception. In '82, he hit wrong notes, wiggled obscenely on the piano bench and otherwise hammed his way through his "Rhapsody," that being his personally fraught road to the sublime.

Montero's much admired party trick is to cleverly improvise on a theme shouted out from the audience. On Tuesday, concertmaster Martin Chalifour played the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, and she did an impressive three-minute Baroque romp on it for an encore. Then Dudamel, who remained on the stage, asked her for another. Someone in the crowd screamed "Guantanamera," and she produced more technically challenging, pleasing boilerplate.

A Venezuelan in Hollywood, Dudamel ended with Gershwin's "An American in Paris." He commands its character and big moments in a kind of generically Gershwin way. I suspect he will, in time, get beyond the surface. But an engaging surface isn't such a bad thing. At least for now.

-- Mark Swed

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Photo: Pianist Gabriela Montero with Gustavo Dudamel conducting Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times.    

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