sun 18/08/2019

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel, Barbican Hall

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel, Barbican Hall

Blistering Beethoven Seven shows a winning partnership at work

Gustavo Dudamel's Beethoven Seven: A carefully shaped thrill

There had been murmurings that his star had dimmed. That Gustavo Dudamel's partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (greeted with such fanfare in 2009) had yet to set the West Coast on fire. Had this Icarus flown too high? Would their debut visit to the Barbican last night resemble Breughel's fall, Latino legs flailing in an orchestral sea? Not a bit of it.

Admittedly, we had to wait until the second half for something truly special to happen. The first half didn't really give Dudamel much chance to show off any of his many talents. In the John Adams opener, Slonimsky's Earbox (1995), this was partly down to the fact that orchestral virtuosity is already written so cleverly into the work. The conductor merely needs to behave like a durable set of batteries. The model is Stravinsky's Le Chant du Rossignol. Adams sticks with the airborne avian squabbling. Several raga-like scales appear and commingle. The first was beautifully realised by the principal viola, Carrie Dennis. Another sets off on horn and double bass.

The difficulty in Minimalist music is transition. One usually drifts from one plane to another in a slightly fumbly way. It's a bit like falling asleep at the wheel of your car. You awake with a jolt and find yourself in Dudley. Dudamel could do nothing about this. Those elements that he had control over were, however, expertly and energetically handled.

Another unflattering work was up next. Leonard Bernstein's First Symphony, Jeremiah, gave Dudamel little to do except to show that he has feelings. The few ideas that are spread thinly through this early anguished work couldn't break through the portentousness. So Dudamel assumed a Jeremiah-like woe, stomping his foot on the podium and growling at the orchestra. Neither this, nor the dance - which heralds the descent of Jerusalem into chaos and doesn't cry out to be (and thus wasn't) tapped by toe - nor the richly woven expressive mezzo of Kelley O'Connor redeemed events. I came away feeling that there are far too many excellent American works of this era for this one to have made it onto this programme - though there were some neat motivic tie-ins with the works surrounding it.

So we hoped for more. And we got it. The great thing about Dudamel's Beethoven 7 was that it did so much more than was expected. If any work was made for the perpetuum mobile maestro, it's this "apotheosis of the dance", as Wagner called it. And Dudamel could have simply jumped his way through it, curls springing all over the shop in Head & Shoulders fashion, firework here, firework there. Instead, he reconsidered almost every aspect of the piece: tempi, colours and phrasing. And the stamp he brought to bear on the work was idiosyncratic and bracing and brilliant.

The orchestra - on this evidence, it could be America's finest - played its part. The strings performed keepy-uppy with their melodies, creating this magnetic bond with the notes by wrapping the melodies around their bows and never letting go. The results were the most extraordinary canopies: thin and floaty in the suspended opening, bold and flighty in the Presto. Texturally, things were springing out with unfamiliarity all around. Why had that fierce open E-string sound in the development of the Vivace been hidden from me for so long?

The musical space was mugged by the unexpected peripheries. Horns, timpani and double bass took control. The opening movement almost became a timpani concerto. The horns announced themselves in rightly raspy ways. In their neatness and pungency and pull - building up and breaking down the harmonic reality wilfully - the double basses were a constant source of excitement and wonder.

For Dudamel the Trio seemed to be the nucleus from which everything could source its strength. It was a hearth and home and it roared with warmth

And for the finale? Dudamel could quite easily have just waved his Stetson and rode off into the sunset. But again, he shaped and worked the phrasing, revelling in textural high-wire acts: the aggressively punchy, the silkily joyous, the virtuosically dry, the grantically bold. And then the ground began to see-saw as the double basses decided that they'd had enough of the high jinks.

This was an evening in which the details were contributing to the bigger picture. And Dudamel's role in this was vital. He gave the players the space - the tempi were mostly old-fashioned, leisurely and Colin Davis-like - to play with beauty. The take-home-and-frame loveliness of the ornamental turn from principal flute, David Buck, in the opening motif of the Vivace would not have been possible if Dudamel hadn't given him the room to spread his wings.

There were encores, including a rendition of Brahms's First Hungarian Dance, and wave upon wave of applause (mostly standing). What remained in my memory, however, was the Trio. There was something very special about this burning heart. For Dudamel it seemed to be the nucleus from which everything and everyone could source their strength. It was a hearth and home. It roared with warmth, and could have powered the city. Tonight, Mahler 9.

Watch Gustavo Dudamel's inaugural concert at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performing the opening of Mahler's First Symphony in Walt Disney Concert Hall

Comments

"The strings performed keepy-uppy with their melodies" WTF pull yourself together. Even the internet expects better than this.

Thanks for your posting. What a wonderful experience to hear Dudamel's inaugural concert at the Walt Disney Hall with Mahler's First Symphony. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Loved your comments on the Barbicon concert!

not to forget in all the excitement about "The Dude," it was Essa-Pakka-Saalonen who made the L.A. Phil into a world class orchestra. his choice of program for a world tour, including London's BarbicAn, would have been more carefully chosen. seems like a lot of money just to dance to the 7th Beethoven.

You hit the nail on the head ,money talks

How much more careful than a first half of Adams's Slonimsky's Earbox and Bernstein's First Symphony can you get, whatever you may think about the works in question? I'd have loved to encounter both live - but I was over at the Southbank listening to...Salonen.

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