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Unexaggerated Brilliance

March 25, 2008

It doesn't matter how much hype is swirling around conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He is the real deal, a great all-around young talent, who consistently delivers the goods, as his debut concerts with the San Francisco Symphony last week proved.
All of Davies Hall’s 2,750 seats were sold for a 10 a.m. open rehearsal, surely a first, and there was a long line of hoping-against-hope applicants for the nonexistent tickets, all but waving a finger in the air a la Deadheads in quest of admission. The cause of it all was Venezuela's Dudamel, a 27-year-old superstar who has been conducting for a dozen years. He has made a huge splash around the world, and in neighboring Los Angeles where he will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as the Philharmonic's music director next year. Last November he became an overnight idol locally, after leading his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in a sensational concert (see review).

Inside Davies, in spite of the great expectations, Dudamel was almost unnoticed as he casually walked to the podium, dressed in jeans, T-shirt tail sticking out from under a drab, utilitarian sweater. Without a look at the score (which later served as the resting place for the hastily discarded sweater) he launched into Stravinsky's 1910 Firebird, and suddenly it became crystal clear what all the hype is about. Two unusual events that took place at the rehearsal illustrate the conductor’s prowess.

First, near the end of The Firebird, as the battle against the evil magician Kashchei is won, heavy, spontaneous applause broke out in the hall even while the music continued, like a deafening "Ole!" rising in a crowded bullring. Then, in an unprecedented scene, there was a standing ovation at the end of the Stravinsky rehearsal.
Twice the Excitement, Twice the Ovations
The standing-O occurred again that evening, and it was not occasioned only by Dudamel cleaning up for the concert. No, the acclaim came in response to the same vital, exciting performance, which had gotten better. Dudamel's few minutes of brief corrections and suggestions at the rehearsal paid off in a presentation of The Firebird that should resound in listeners' ears and hearts for a long, long time. It was a spontaneous, unanimous ovation, as the audience and orchestra celebrated a great performance.

Even while Kirill Gerstein unceremoniously polished off the pleasant banalities of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1 (on an American Steinway, quite without the brilliance of the Symphony's other, German, instrument), some wonderful sounds came from the orchestra, whetting the appetite for the Stravinsky.

This was a Firebird for the ages, the music pouring to Dudamel, from the many Ravel-like hushed passages, through a Dukas-influenced sense of playfulness, through to the gnarled, Bartokian climaxes. Balances were flawless, there was rhythmic excitement, lyrical outpouring, and charming interludes, each, in turn, performed exactly right.

At the beginning, the appearance of the Firebird came from a great distance, barely audible. The princesses' circle dance (khorovod) was simple and charming, the appearances of the Firebird magical. At the end, the "Dissolution of All Enchantments" and "General Rejoicing" pulled the audience out of their seats, with a true, cathartic climax, which did not sound, as it sometimes can, like Respighiesque circus music.

Although the orchestra exhibited ensemble playing at its best, with palpable affection for the conductor, individual contributions were outstanding, especially from concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, acting principal violist Yun Jie Liu, principal cellist Michael Grebanier, principal flutists Tim Day and Robin McKee, and pretty much the entire woodwind and brass sections.

The music came from the instrumentalists, but Dudamel was responsible for the gestalt of the sound, by turns hushed, bright, assuasive, charming, glittering, and intense. As usual with him, Dudamel took no solo bows, standing with the musicians and giving them all the credit, which was richly deserved. It was the icing on the cake. Yes, no hype can spoil the Dudamel Experience.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].