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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel and Gil Shaham play Mozart and Berg

November 20, 2009 |  3:00 pm

The great 20th century conductor Bruno Walter claimed he wasn’t ready to conduct Mozart until he was 50. This refined, unfussy musician believed the heaven-sent symphonies of a young composer who died at 35 were wasted on the young, with their immature tendencies to romanticize, their childish swagger, their puppy love.

Gustavo Dudamel, 28, opened and closed a Los Angeles Philharmonic program in Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night with two late, major Mozart symphonies – the “Prague” and “Jupiter.”  In an act of great seriousness, he used these scores to make an Alban Berg sandwich. The filling was Berg’s elegiac 12-tone Violin Concerto, written in “memory to an angel,” and the wondrously affecting swan song of the Austrian composer who died at 50 in 1935. The violinist was the still youthful Gil Shaham, 10 years Dudamel’s senior.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing whether Walter would have thought that Thursday’s performances had too much musical baby fat.

But I thought about this once-perfect Mozartean on Thursday. Dudamel uses a slightly smaller orchestra for the symphonies than was the custom in Walter’s day. And Dudamel upended the fast movements with rhythmically precise swift punches the way early musickers sometimes do with their flexible period instrument ensembles.

But, somehow, this Venezuelan, who has conducted the Vienna Philharmonic only a time or two (and most recently in Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky), excavated a long-lost Viennese character out of his new orchestra.

Perhaps a few molecules of Old Vienna still linger in the L.A. Philharmonic’s marrow. Walter spent his last years in Los Angeles. Otto Klemperer -- who apprenticed with Mahler, as did Walter -- was music director here in the 1930s at a time when Viennese refugees populated the Hollywood studio music departments. When Zubin Mehta became music director in 1962, he was determined to channel Vienna, where he had studied, and spent years on making that happen.

Dudamel managed the task practically overnight. This was not the sound of his Berio or Verdi earlier this month and has nothing to do with the surfs-up California sound he will need next week for his West Coast, Left Coast concerts. But Thursday was a Gemütlichkeit Vienna-fest.

The “Prague” (Symphony No. 38) shares the heavy dramatic clout of “Don Giovanni,” an opera Dudamel has conducted, and he made the symphony weigh a great deal. The “Jupiter” (No. 41) burst with energy and was treated in a grand fashion. Dudamel likes to take repeats and he likes slow tempos in the slow movements, so they went on an affectionately long time.

The special Mozartean moment in the “Jupiter,” which ended with a spectacularly incisive and momentum-crazed Finale, was the Minuetto.  It was so airy it seemed to float like a balloon. 

That airiness also proved an insightful echo of the floating quality of parts of Berg’s Violin Concerto.  While following Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, Berg didn’t avoid tonality and he even found a way to quote Bach and folk song. At points Berg’s lyricism could be downright Mozartean, and that clearly appealed to Dudamel and Shaham.

Dudamel paid particular attention to details. Often two or more very different expressive lines are played at the same time, but Berg indicates exactly what should be highlighted. Dudamel went him one better by creating an extraordinary three-dimension sound field that allowed every line to be exactly shaded.  Rich emotion and simultaneity rarely add up to apprehensibility as they did here.

Shaham contributed his characteristic lovely tone and easy virtuosity. In music that both looks forward and back stylistically, he looked to the past more than to the future. He even allowed a tad of Tchaikovsky-like flair into his phrasing (which is a tad too much).

But quibbles are beside the point. Complaining about an excess of beauty is not a 21st century luxury.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. 8 p.m. today (a "Casual Friday" concert without the "Prague" Symphony), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Pre-concert talks one hour before. Limited ticket availability, call (323) 850-2000.

Photo: Violinist Gil Shaham and conductor Gustavo Dudamel performing Berg's Violin Concerto Thursday in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu/Los Angeles Times