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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel and Emanuel Ax play the classics at Disney Hall

October 9, 2010 |  1:32 pm

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Despite the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s reputation for breaking the mold of the old-fashioned orchestra, and despite Gustavo Dudamel’s image as a conductor tuned in to the changeable 21st century, conventional concerts of classics remain a (if no longer the only) mission of the organization. Friday night, for his first regular L.A. Philharmonic program of the season (following a flashy gala on Thursday), Dudamel led a program that would not have been controversial 100 years ago.

Weber’s overture to his opera, “Der Freischütz,” Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony all came from the first half of the 19th century. The playing had an old-fashioned vitality and vibrancy, reminiscent of a time when the classics weren’t overly familiar. Even the ultra-modern Walt Disney Concert hall felt broken-in. Its sense of intimacy, moreover, replicates (and mostly betters acoustically) various famous venues of yore.

“Freischütz” was a supernatural opera meant to scare, and Dudamel made the overture suitable for Halloween. He withheld fortissimo attacks for just the nanosecond it takes to startle. Furious music chased the listener into horror-movie thickets where something hair-raising lurks behind every tree. Lyrical passages soared charmingly, all the better to disguise their hidden thorns.

Dudamel The Los Angeles Philharmonic is changing. Dudamel has been experimenting with seating and sound. No longer dividing the first and second violins, he put the violas to his right Thursday and Friday, and he moved the cellos and the basses also across stage, adding more depth and heft to the strings. Thursday he lowered the risers a little, although they were back to their usual height Friday.

The program book announced the retirement of violist Jerry Epstein and trumpet player Boyde Hood, along with two new principals -– flutist David Buck and bassoonist Whitney Crockett. The orchestra, however, remains mum about the retirement of long-time principal horn, William Lane. The roster now lists the position as vacant.

Once Dudamel fills that opening and the vacancy for principal second violin, we may have a better idea of the sound he is after. But already in “Freischütz” the orchestra revealed a slightly darker and more traditional character than it had under Esa-Pekka Salonen, now conductor laureate.

And that seemed to suit the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Emanuel Ax, just fine, just as much as Salonen's brighter sound had. Friday was Dudamel’s first time working with the pianist who has had so close a relationship with the orchestra that he is considered part of its extended family.

The concerto is a dialogue between soloist and orchestra, which was a radical move when Beethoven made it. There are strong political associations, the confrontation of the individual against the establishment.

Dudamel is always feisty, but the performance belonged to Ax. His full tone, beautifully shaped phrasing and profoundly natural musicality gave the kind of Beethovenian authority the young conductor seemed not about to challenge. Still, Ax is a anything but sanctimonious, and in the Finale he appeared ready for a little fun, merrily egging on his conductor. Ax’s encore -– Schubert’s gorgeous Second Impromptu -– cast a spell.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, after intermission, was incomparably exhilarating. I mean that literally. I checked by listening to my favorite recording of the symphony -- George Szell’s with the Cleveland Orchestra -– after the concert. Sure enough, next to Dudamel’s reading, the 1960 recording actually sounded a tad colorless and predictable. More astonishing still, the fabled Cleveland Orchestra of that time lacked the current L.A. Philharmonic’s lightning reflexes.

Essentially what Dudamel did was invest each measure of Schumann’s symphony with a sense of swagger and hunger. He wanted every yearning phrase to yearn like it had never yearned before. He wanted big chords to imply some kind of untold meaning.

He was cocky on the podium with his conducting gestures. He jumped. He wiggled his hips. He could be hyperactive, and he could be still. He sometimes put his whole body into the desire for a certain expression; sometimes he needed only a finger.

Mainly, there was a sense that Dudamel was in love with every note in this score, and that he had the technique to show the orchestra and the audience why. He’s done that before in big symphonies, but he’s also gotten lost in the moment when he went overboard. Schumann’s half-hour symphony is tightly woven, and this time Dudamel went overboard and kept the thread.

Now let’s see him top that!

-- Mark Swed

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $44 - $167; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photos: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic with pianist Emanuel Ax in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times.

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