mon 27/05/2019

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel, Barbican Hall/ Beethoven Masterclass, LSO St Luke's | reviews, news & interviews

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel, Barbican Hall/ Beethoven Masterclass, LSO St Luke's

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel, Barbican Hall/ Beethoven Masterclass, LSO St Luke's

Dudamel dazzles in youth training but remains earthbound in grown-up Mahler

Dudamel in London: Phenomenal youth trainer at LSO St Luke's, more earthbound in Mahler at the BarbicanRosie Reed Gold

Believe it or not, some critics can't get enough of London's superabundant concert scene. I could hardly be sour about not catching Gustavo Dudamel's first Barbican concert on Thursday night, spellbound as I was by his predecessor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, spinning such insidiously beautiful Bartók with the Philharmonia over on the South Bank. Yesterday lunchtime I caught Dudamel coaching 80 of the city's young musicians in the finale of the Beethoven Seventh I'd missed before he went on that night to conduct Mahler's Ninth, surely the symphonic repertoire's supreme challenge to comprehensive musicianship. Isn't that a schedule any music lover should envy?

Believe it or not, some critics can't get enough of London's superabundant concert scene. I could hardly be sour about not catching Gustavo Dudamel's first Barbican concert on Thursday night, spellbound as I was by his predecessor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, spinning such insidiously beautiful Bartók with the Philharmonia over on the South Bank. Yesterday lunchtime I caught Dudamel coaching 80 of the city's young musicians in the finale of the Beethoven Seventh I'd missed before he went on that night to conduct Mahler's Ninth, surely the symphonic repertoire's supreme challenge to comprehensive musicianship. Isn't that a schedule any music lover should envy?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because the Venezuelan motivator put head and heart, chapter and verse, into making every component of Beethoven's heaven-storming dithyramb live both for his eager players and a select audience equally ready to eat out of his hand. No, because Mahler's life-and-death battleground brought not a hint of the usual goosebumps nor so much as a pricking of the eyes. Maybe that's partly my problem. True, I'd been spoilt by Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra giving the greatest performance I've ever heard, or ever hope to hear, last summer - of anything (it's just been issued on DVD). A hard act indeed to follow, but there's no blueprint for characterising Mahler's fluctuating endgame philosophies. What they do need is sensitive handling that gets under the listener's skin. Dudamel's Los Angeles interpretation certainly wasn't the least interesting I've heard, but it struck me as the least embroiling. Its feet were all too squarely planted on the ground from the start, a characteristic perhaps more of this dressed-to-impress orchestra than of its music director. That must be wrong when Mahler tries every which way to leave the earth, or at least to acquire various bird's-eye perspectives on its mundanities.

For that reason Mahler's inner movements, which present the outward life of stuff through the distortions of his fractured late style, worked best in purely expressive terms. Not that insights and sounds I've never heard before didn't pop up throughout the symphony. I've taken away with me the cellos' feathery susurrations in the first of the opening movement's painful convalescences, like a lost congregation murmuring in a bombed-out church; the supremely acidic violin solos against flutter-tonguing flutes in an extra-grotesque scherzo; and the weird sensation that something must be left out underneath the spare woodwind dialogues of the great final Adagio, compellingly slow and studied.

Up until the great cry of a wounded heart which launches it, I'd been inclined to think there was something a bit dead behind the Los Angeles strings' eyes in less than inward lullabies and reveries. The Barbican's amplifying tendencies certainly didn't help any attempts at introspection in the first three movements. But the string sound then took on a depth and sonority which surprised me. Gilded at times by William Caballero's superbly mellow and confident horn solo, they guided us through the final meditation unflinchingly. But shouldn't we do the flinching? In a way, I was quite glad not to, for once, and simply took this straightforward farewell at objective face value. At least the audience played its necessary part in holding the silence both between and after the dying fall of cries and whispers.

Dudamel is surely the greatest of animateurs - a messiah of sorts without the tedious cult of personality that usually entails

If that Adagio is the ultimate long goodnight, the galloping finale of Beethoven's Seventh is, as Dudamel lost no time in telling us at 11.45 that morning, the best possible caffeine shot. But the blend needed nurturing, and so after an exciting but approximate play-through from the orchestra of schoolchildren, Guildhall students and a discreet scattering of friendly, encouraging Los Angeles players we got the works: rhythms, dynamics, the need to keep the few singing phrases energised, the textures dissected but not overworked from top to bottom.

As an infallibly moving epilogue to the St Luke's session, Dudamel made a speech quietly asserting his credo of music as a fundamental human right and using the occasion of his recently passed 30th birthday to hope that his young charges would carry on being able to work and live with the same passionate attention to detail they'd found in their music-making. That febrile energy, incidentally, may be why this already very thoughtful conductor can't yet come to rest on the wisdoms of Mahler's Ninth, but Dudamel is surely the greatest of animateurs - a messiah of sorts without the tedious cult of personality that usually entails. And more good news is that the education programme, which Dudamel has already pioneered in a Los Angeles youth scheme following the famous Venezuelan Sistema under which he grew up, is to continue in the LAPO's 2013 Barbican residency.

Mahler's inner movements, which present the outward life of stuff through the distortions of his fractured late style, worked best in purely expressive terms

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