In the long run, Gustavo Dudamel’s greatest strength may turn out to be his yen for programming, for he came up with a lineup Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall that leaped beyond the mere printed page into autobiography.
Normally Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 would be an invitation to routine, but in this case, it was a return to the piece with which Dudamel made his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl back in 2005. It was also -– probably coincidentally -– a bold challenge to Valery Gergiev and his hard-working Russians, who were scheduled to play Tchaikovsky 5 down the freeway in Costa Mesa on this same evening.
There would have been even more autobiographical significance had Yefim Bronfman –- who was the soloist for Dudamel’s Disney Hall debut in 2007 -– performed the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3 as planned, but unfortunately the pianist broke a finger and had to cancel at the last minute. So the resourceful Venezuelan quickly slipped Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” Suite No. 2 -– which he conducts from memory -– into the breach and pulled off a wonderfully sensuous performance loaded with daringly slow, sustained passages and sudden bursts of his trademark razzmatazz.
Dudamel also kept in gear his vigorous agenda of promoting contemporary music with the first Philharmonic performance of “Orion” (1979) by the French Canadian spectral-music-influenced composer Claude Vivier -– who happened to be working on an opera about the death of Tchaikovsky when, at age 34, he was stabbed to death by a male prostitute in Paris.
A YouTube listener used the words “ascetic opulence” to describe another of Vivier’s works –- and it’s hard to think of a better way to sum up the 13 1/2-minute “Orion,” with its thick, plushly colorful textures, the Balinese influence in the pinging tuned gongs, and the ghostly male voice singing “Ay – Oh!” in two isolated spots. Dudamel heightened and brightened the colors, gave the swellings more dynamic oomph, and made one want to hear more of Vivier’s music in this hall someday.
There is a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth by Dudamel and the kids of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra from 2008, but in retrospect, it sounds like a rough-hewn blueprint for what Dudamel’s Tchaikovsky Fifth has become in 2011. The overall conception is about the same -– on the slow side, revving up into overdrive in the finale. Yet now there is more graceful flexibility and freedom when Dudamel pulls the phrases about; the rhythms are stronger; there is real drama, not sentimentality, in the second movement; and the Philharmonic brought everything to life with dazzling clarity.
Hang on to your seats when Dudamel takes off on the Presto coda of the finale; it rocked the house Thursday.
Music review: Gergiev & Mariinsky play Tchaikovsky at Segerstrom
Yefim Bronfman injures finger, withdraws from L.A. Phil concerts
Tchaikovsky's Fifth, here there and everywhere
-– Richard S. Ginell
Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $85.25 to $185; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com. Also: Granada Theatre, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara; 4 p.m. Sunday; sold out; (805) 899-2222.
Photo: Dudamel on Oct 6 conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times