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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts a great Gorecki Third

May 27, 2011 |  2:00 pm

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Gustavo Dudamel’s “Brahms Unbound” festival with the Los Angeles Philharmonic seemed like it could become unnervingly unbound when two of the composers commissioned to write new works died this season before they could finish their pieces. A percussion concerto by Peter Lieberson was to have had its premiere Thursday on the program with Brahms’ Third Symphony. Fourth symphonies by Henryk Górecki and Brahms were to have concluded the festival next week.

The replacement for the Lieberson Thursday in Walt Disney Concert Hall, added as a brother to Brahms’ Third, was Górecki’s famous Third Symphony (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) for soprano and orchestra. Dudamel’s transcendent performance of this special, spectral symphony with soprano Jessica Rivera was one of the great ones and a fitting elegy to both Górecki and Lieberson.

Twenty years ago, a spectacular hit recording of the nearly hourlong work of slow, tranquil and extra tranquil movements by a then-obscure Polish composer had the surprising consequence of briefly putting soprano Dawn Upshaw and conductor David Zinman on the pop charts. Essentially one long lament, the symphony incorporates a sad folk song, texts from a 15th century monastery and a plea to the Virgin Mary found on the wall of a Nazi prison in Poland.

The score has been controversial for its extreme minimalism. Its glacial buildups don’t seem to go anywhere. Górecki’s fixation on unmoving harmonies and stubborn rocking figures feel like the Earth turning on its axis. But when presented in the right environment, the score can put a receptive listener in a trance.

Disney Hall was that environment. The lights were dimmed. The symphony begins with the low basses barely perceptible; in the clear acoustic, they set a magical tone. Dudamel remained rapt throughout. He wasn’t especially cumbersome or heavy. Instead, he appeared to be in a groove, maintaining a slow flow and a slow-burning fire. He let the little bits of occasional instrumental color -- a single harp or piano note, a willowy woodwind accent -– function like exquisite aural incense. For minds inclined to be altered, he might have been a subtle psychedelic agent.

Rivera stood on a platform, amid the first row of strings, facing the conductor. That, too, proved profoundly effective. Her soprano soared.

Different singers give these songs different degrees of sorrowfulness. Vibrato-laden Polish sopranos in early performances (the symphony was written in 1976) laid the lamenting on impressively thick. Upshaw was the celestial, pure voice of a consoling angel.

Goreckisoprano Rivera amazingly manages to do both. Like Dudamel, she produced a big sound and conveyed continual intensity. But she had her halo on as well. A young singer who has worked closely with Upshaw, she now owns Górecki’s Third.

Originally intended to open the program Thursday, Górecki’s Third reaches a too ethereal realm to be followed by Brahms' briskest symphony. So Dudamel properly switched the order at the last minute. More than that, he ensured that this would be big Brahms, perhaps Górecki-ized Brahms, everywhere meaningful and spacious.

There was certainly imagination at work. In the first movement, Dudamel experimented with swells and odd balances, striving for a curious rawness to the orchestral sound. The Andante plodded, but stately tempos allowed Dudamel to lavish loving attention on almost every phrase. Each moment, for him, became an aha moment.

The third movement, Orrin Howard wrote in the program note, is the simplest of scherzos. This time it became the most elegiac of scherzos. The finale had a hushed air, but with dramatic eruptions.

Dudamel’s tardy tempos made sense in retrospect. Brahms tied the end of his symphony to the beginning by repeating the work's opening theme, and Dudamel treated the symphony structure like a huge arch. Brahms likely wanted more drive and less analysis. But if Dudamel's "Brahms Unbound" here wasn't exactly Brahms unburdened, he did what he needed to to create the necessary atmosphere for the Górecki. And it was worth it.

RELATED:

Music review: Gustavo Dudamel premieres Sofia Gubaidulina's 'Glorious Percussion'

Music review: Gustavo Dudamel partners Brahms' Requiem with Steven Mackey's 'Beautiful Passing'

Music review: Gustavo Dudamel begins 'Brahms Unbound'

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic "Brahms Unbound" with Gustavo Dudamel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Friday (Casual Fridays without Górecki's Third) and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $23.75 to $177. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Top: Dudamel conducts the Gorecki. Lower, Soprano Jessica Rivera was the Gorecki soloist. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times

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