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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel begins 'Brahms Unbound'

May 6, 2011 |  1:23 pm

Dudamel kavakos“Brahms Unbound,” Gustavo Dudamel’s month-long Los Angeles Philharmonic festival pairing Brahms’ four symphonies and German Requiem with new music, began Thursday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The First Symphony, at the concert’s close, unfolded slowly, mightily, glowingly, a little mystically, occasionally radiantly and, ultimately, heroically. An elated crowd cheered. All is seemingly well.

The symphony had important, exorcist work to do, a curse to lift. Unbinding Brahms –- a composer in whom progressive and reactionary tendencies clashed –- can mean unchaining a monster. The new music did not arrive  as planned.

Osvaldo Golijov was commissioned to write a new violin concerto for the Greek star Leonidas Kavakos to precede the Brahms First. The event is listed on the highlights of just about every international music calendar for the month of May. But in what is becoming a worrisome series of Golijov's missed deadlines, the popular composer didn’t finish the piece in time.

Henryk Górecki died in November before putting the finishing touches on his Fourth Symphony, which the L.A. Philharmonic commissioned as a companion to the Brahms Fourth. Peter Lieberson died last month before completing his percussion concerto, the orchestra's commission for the program with Brahms' Third.

The festival's remaining contemporary concertos, by Sofia Gubaidulina and Steve Mackey, are recent scores, not premieres, so no problem.

The substitute for Golijov for the opening program was a violin concerto by Henri Dutilleux titled “L’arbre des Songes” (The Tree of Dreams), written in 1985 for Isaac Stern. You can never go wrong with Dutilleux.

Dutilleux, who turned 95 in January, is a refined, eloquent composer. The understated strangeness of his music is not unlike the polite surrealism of late Luis Buñuel films that takes a while to register. Even the title, “Tree of Dreams,” sounds like classic French cinema.

Dutilleux’s score is fashioned like roots and branches, each of the four short movements, connected by interludes, growing out of the other. The violin solos are not flashy, and Kavakos -- who has a silken tone, wonderful control and his own high degree of refinement -- was a splendid protagonist.

The 43-year-old violinist doesn’t play much new music, but he has said in interviews that he pored over this Dutilleux score at night while serving in the Greek army. Perhaps that’s why the branches of  “L’arbre” Thursday night seemed to reach for the realm of twinkling stars, especially with the composer’s use of harp, cimbalom, celesta, piano and chiming metallic percussion in the interludes. Dudamel was a sensitive accompanist.

The conductor began the concert with Brahms' “Academic Festival” Overture. Details of counterpoint and rhythm were carefully and excitingly imparted. So were the high spirits of the German beer hall.

The “Academic Festival” Overture supposedly came easily to Brahms, but he needed 21 years to finish his first symphony (I hope Golijov is not reading this), what with Beethoven’s oppressive ghost looking over his shoulder. The symphony opens with as heavy an introduction as any symphony had ever had hung around its neck. Timpani thump, thump, thump. Strings climb, winds descend, horns remain glued to a drone.

The mood of the Allegro, when we finally get to it, is portentous. The rhythmic motive from the famous opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one unpinning. The somewhat lighter middle movements are only somewhat lighter. A big tune in the last movement swims in murky waters.

Young conductors struggle with this music. In his later years, Leonard Bernstein ultimately found his way into Brahms by undressing him in front of the Viennese public, outing a stodgy composer’s hidden licentious sensuality. The mature Carlo Maria Giulini in his L.A. Philharmonic Brahms basked in the glow of that heaviness. Both were very slow.

Dudamel’s First was as slow as I’ve ever heard it, but where Bernstein luxuriated, where Giulini divined, Dudamel seemed to want both at once. He turned so many accented moments into events that Brahms’ carefully prepared climaxes became just another in the series of peaks rather than arrivals. Transitional moments sometimes felt like air being let out of tires.

But there wasn’t a dull moment. Dudamel’s great sense of rhythm and drama got him through the slowness. He, of course, sexed up the few frolicking passages with an electricity shot through the orchestra.

Dudamel also produced a wonderful Brahms sound. He maintained enough transparency of texture that individual orchestral colors were carefully defined. Every solo, and particularly concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s in the slow movement, was memorable.

Whether Dudamel’s goal of merging a Brahmsian yin and yang is doable, time will tell. By slowing things down, he reveals the dissonances, the harmonic curiosities and the rhythmic intricacies that are the progressive side of the composer. His tempos obscure Brahms' reliance on historical models, de-classicizing him. But there is also in Dudamel’s broad Brahms a strong element of romanticizing, of overplaying emotion and even thrill-seeking.

At 30, Dudamel is an experienced conductor and a still young man. His Brahms is, like he is, alive and full of fascinating contradictions. And unbound.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic "Brahms Unbound" with Gustavo Dudamel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $23.75-$177. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photo: Leonidas Kavakos performs the violin solos for Henri Dutilleux's "L'arbre des Songes" at Thursday's Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

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