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Mixed Results From Dudamel’s Pairing of Bruckner and Andrew Norman

November 4, 2019

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are about to hit the road again, resuming their centennial tour this month with stops in Mexico City, London, Boston, and New York City. We are getting previews of two of the tour programs, the first of which coupled Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 with one of the Phil’s many, many centennial commissions, Andrew Norman’s Sustain, Saturday afternoon, Nov. 2 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The choice of Bruckner may prove to be controversial, especially among observers who have not exactly been enamored with the rock star-celebrity aura that has surrounded Dudamel even before he came to the LA Phil. Bruckner the pious, visionary architect of cathedrals of symphonic sound would seem to be at the opposite pole of the things that Dudamel does best — like hard-grooving Latin American concert music, tempestuous new music, Tchaikovsky, and on a good day, Mahler.

Indeed, Dudamel hasn’t done much Bruckner; I recall that he led the Symphony No. 7 here back in 2011 and there is a recording of the Symphony No. 9 from his formative years at the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. In the Ninth, he took a rather expansive approach, particularly in the third movement, which came off as something less than ecstatic. His Fourth Symphony on Saturday was more in line with other recent performances of Central European repertoire where he has adopted faster speeds, although not outside the norm in this piece.

The ingredients seemed to be in place; the notes were there, things moved along with a steady pulse, the orchestra handled them mostly with precision and in the lyrical second subjects, graciousness. What I didn’t hear was any sense of patiently constructed cumulative weight and power in the crescendos and climaxes. Sometimes they would suddenly explode brutally at ear-piercing volume. In the Scherzo, they were rushed to where they sounded frantic at the point of detonation. Maybe Bruckner with sudden hyped-up peaks is more in tune with what the attention spans of the 21st century need — or deserve — but overall, it didn’t come close to being an overwhelming, transcendent experience.

Norman’s Sustain, which was first heard anywhere only a little over a year ago in Disney Hall, is getting enviably wide exposure for a piece of new music by a still-young composer. It is part of the LA Phil’s touring repertoire, a download-only recording on prestigious Deutsche Grammophon came out a couple of months ago, and it received the unusual boost of being programmed a second time in consecutive seasons.

Sustain still makes a more vivid impression live than it does on the recording. The cogently organized sound bath of colors rushing and washing over one another play with the razor-sharp acoustical properties of the hall. The banks of cascading, falling strings in the twin openings of the piece’s two sections produce a stunning stereo effect live. (Forgive me, but those cascading strings sometimes remind me of Mantovani, the British orchestra leader whose string-laden albums were once in every middle-class home and now rest undisturbed in thrift shops everywhere.) When the brasses and winds simulate rapidly-repeating digital-delay effects on one note, the whole room seems to shudder in response.

Best of all is watching Dudamel and the Phil handle the climactic passage three-quarters of the way through when Norman goes into his caroming video-game-like manner that soon dissolves into delicious, slippery freeform. Then you see the two, deliberately detuned pianos gradually close out the piece, with percussionists delicately scraping two large wood panels. You really have to be there in the room with Sustain — and thank goodness that audiences outside Los Angeles will be.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.

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