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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl [Updated]

August 6, 2010 |  1:55 pm
Dudamel After conducting "Carmen" in concert and a Bernstein/Gershwin program at the Hollywood Bowl this week, Gustavo Dudamel finished up his short summer Los Angeles Philharmonic stint with a Latin-themed grab bag Thursday.

He chose music that would be clearly dear to a South American's heart, even if the majority of it was written by Spanish (De Falla) and French (Ravel) composers and none of it by a Venezuelan. He chose music for a summer's night (even if hasn't been all that summery in the Cahuenga Pass lately). He made sure to include a Bowl favorite ("Bolero").

But first he had to get Bernstein out of his system. If the "West Side Story" Symphonic Dances on Tuesday brought back memories of Bernstein's Bowl appearances with the L.A. Philharmonic in 1982, then the seldom heard Divertimento, which opened Thursday's program, continued a theme. Bernstein wrote this 15-minute salmagundi of seven different-styled, super-short movements in 1980 for the Boston Symphony's centennial.

It is meant as a kind of flashback of Bernstein's Boston youth and his relationship with the orchestra he grew up with and always wanted to head. John Williams, then music director of the Boston Pops, conducted the first L.A. Philharmonic performance at the Bowl that Bernsteinian summer of 1982.

The Divertimento has not held up well in Boston or anywhere else: It was thought silly (in its turkey trot and "BSO Forever" finale), overworked (in Bernstein's efforts to squeeze in a too-clever 12-tone row). There is a curious trio for flutes, a samba, a blues, allusions to Beethoven and, with a 7/8 waltz to which Bernstein once added vulgar lyrics, Tchaikovsky.

Dudamel adores the Divertimento. He played the waltz movement as an encore on his L.A. Philharmonic tour in the spring. At Avery Fisher Hall, charmed New Yorkers scratched their heads in wonderment over it. They'll find out the source when Dudamel conducts the full work with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie in October.

Many have surmised that Bernstein, who died in 1990 when Dudamel was 9, would have found in the Venezuelan his musical progeny. There can be no doubt that he would have taken extreme pleasure in watching his overlooked late scores finally get their due thanks to Dudamel's persuasive advocacy. As Dudamel did with Bernstein's Concerto for Orchestra at his Disney concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra two years ago, he made newly fresh the acid and sugar, the flamboyance and subtle sophistication of a score not meant to be deep but still, every note of it, overwhelmingly Bernstein.

The three little South American pieces that followed -- Dudamel described this portion of the program to the audience as a journey through the Americas -- were three little pieces too many. Old-fashioned Argentinean tangos by Mariano Mores ("El Firulete") and Horacio Salgán ("A Fuego Lento") seem soppy in the aftermath of Astor Piazzolla's new tango, although Dudamel's description of "A Fuego Lento" as a "man who cooks in a slow fire to the girl" couldn't have set the tone better.

Villa Lobos' "The Little Train of the Caipira" from "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 2 was a lovely interlude between the tangos. But I think Dudamel underestimated his audience. The attendance figure (10,214) was smaller than on his other Bowl nights, and maybe Dudamel needed a bit more substance, say a complete "Bachianas Brasileira."

IsabelBigger De Falla might have been better as well. Dudamel ended the first half with the showy second suite from the ballet "Three-Cornered Hat," and he returned after intermission with "Seven Popular Songs." The three colorful "Three-Cornered Hat" movements were suavely and thrillingly played. But given Dudamel's superb theatricality in "Carmen," he surely could have held his crowd through the whole ballet, which he performed with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood four years ago.

Isabel Leonard was his soloist on that occasion, and it was she who sang the "Seven Popular Songs" Thursday. A young mezzo-soprano from New York, she brought both poise and a hint of sexual allure to these folkish De Falla numbers.

Still, her sensuality was only a warm-up to "Bolero." Rhythmic vitality comes with the Dudamel territory, and he easily found Ravel's repetitious groove. One sly instrumental solo seductively and a little drunkenly led into the next. By the end, though, as Dudamel happily cranked up his climactic crescendo, drunken the whole thing was.

For an encore, Dudamel turned to "Tico Tico." He got away with it on that Israel Philharmonic tour in 2008. He got away with it again.

By the time you read this, he'll already be back in Caracas, where his wife will try, and probably fail, to get him take a vacation. Meanwhile, the L.A. Philharmonic will have to hope it can maintain the momentum for its five remaining Dudamel-free weeks at the Bowl.

-- Mark Swed

[For the record: An earlier version of this review misstated the name of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.]

Photo: Top, Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl Thursday night. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times.



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