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L.A. Phil’s Dudamel Applies Winning Formula to Tchaikovsky

May 11, 2010

The audience was so racked with coughing fits, you’d think it was a sanatorium for consumptives rather than Davies Symphony Hall. Nevertheless, Gustavo Dudamel, leading the L.A. Philharmonic in the second, Tuesday program in San Francisco, brought a cheering crowd to their feet with a predictable, but audience-effective rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony. Earlier, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet entertained with an unmemorized rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s concerto-cum-symphony-cum-suite, The Age of Anxiety.

 

Dudamel’s formula for the Tchaikovsky was simple: When the music is supposed to get louder, accelerate the tempo beyond the norm. Conversely, slow down relative to norm for the quieter passages. Mathematically, pacing deviation was proportional to decibel level. Since I’m a noise freak and a wallower, I would have preferred the reverse: slower-than-average tempos for the climaxes, faster through the quieter longueurs. But I would have applied the reverse formula more selectively than Dudamel did his.

Bolt From the Blue

The most effective section of the symphony was the development section of the first movement, which began with a jolt like dry lightning on a cloudless day. Throughout, Dudamel’s fluid baton technique was enjoyable to watch. He would stop at times and let the orchestra amuse itself, then take charge again. Sometimes his cues seemed to register a bit on the vague side — in any event, the orchestra was occasionally not together at exposed junctures. In another effectively produced section, Dudamel finished the third movement march with such crashing unstopability that the audience prematurely burst into applause, as they often do in the finale of the composer’s Fifth symphony.

The Bernstein work is a curious beast saddled with the plusses and minuses of youth. Bernstein’s lyric, harmonic, and rhythmic gifts are in abundance. So too are flaws. The music is supposed to reflect the ideas and narrative found in W.H. Auden’s poem of the same title. Without a blow-by-blow description in hand or ballet to watch, the musical structure sounds run-on, a semicoherent fantasia with a pretentious barrier of a program. As with much of his music, stylistic and melodic borrowings from other composers are blatant: Igor Stravinsky’s Rite and Firebird, Aaron Copland’s Third symphony and Appalachian Spring make bows along with flashes of Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg. (Ironically, one of Bernstein’s own tunes in the piece, somewhat altered, would become a Noxzema jingle in the 1960s.)

Subdued, but Not Displeased

Reaction to Anxiety was subdued: a handful of standees amidst light to moderate applause. I interviewed many patrons during intermission. Only one disliked the music, apprehending it as “too dissonant.” Others found it “interesting,” one confessing that although she didn’t “normally like modern music,” she found it rather pleasing. So the lukewarm response did not probably reflect indifference, but rather, moderate interest.

In contrast to the Pathetique excesses that he would please the crowd with later, Dudamel took the Bernstein straight, allowing the composer’s excesses to stand on their own. Thibaudet’s performance was on the whole excellent, although somewhat lacking in power. But I wondered about his commitment to the music, since he didn’t know it well enough to perform it from memory. Worse, ventilator breezes affected the pages of his score, causing his page turner to bob up and down to keep the pages flat, and audience members in the proximity to be needlessly worried about his losing his place.

The highlight of the concert was its encore, the lovely, unaffected “Waltz” from Bernstein’s 1980 Divertimento. It’s a charmer, despite the fact there are seven beats to the measure instead of three, and it owes a debt to Bach’s ubiquitous Minuet in G.

So how did L.A.’s orchestra measure up in our fair city? On Tuesday, its horn section was a bit harsh, and I missed the precision I’ve been taking too much for granted from MTT’s band. On the whole, however, it is a fine ensemble led by an attractive conductor whose skill will hopefully grow faster than the initial infatuation for him fades. Fewer formulas will help in this regard.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.