Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Music I'm Listening To: Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

I enjoyed an excellent concert last night in San Francisco at Davies Symphony Hall with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The program was a simple one--City Noir, by John Adams, and Mahler's Symphony No. 1--although an extremely appreciative audience also got an encore that I believe to have been the Intermezzo from Act III of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, with some excellent solo passages for cello and viola. (I'm always rooting for the viola players of the world; I love the sound of the viola.)

City Noir was unfamiliar. That's not surprising, I suppose, as it's a new work (its first performance was in early October 2009). It's one of three pieces the composer has written about "the California experience, its landscape, and its culture," according to Adams in the program notes--this piece written in celebration of the city of Los Angeles in the spirit of film noir. It is, in fact, reminiscent of film scores of the 40s and 50s in places, although I wonder how much of that is attributable to the power of suggestion. It's sometimes brash and jazzy, sometimes slinky, sexy, and moody, but nearly always it has an irresistible nervous energy. I enjoyed this very much. I kept imagining black and white street scenes starkly lit, with Robert Mitchum lurking in a dark corner, obscured by a billow of cigarette smoke. The score was notable for a six-man percussion section, two harps, a sizzling alto sax, and some wonderful trombone playing. The entire orchestra was extraordinary, actually--focused, crisp, and astonishingly responsive to the conductor. The sound was excellent, too. I was somewhat off to the left this time (from the perspective of the audience, in seat CC 5). Maybe the dead spot I've experienced at Davies Symphony Hall is mostly in the middle section of what they call "upper orchestra?" Hmmm....an ongoing investigation.

[Update (December 11, 2010): See my comment on last night's concert for more about the Davies Symphony Hall dead spot.]

With one reservation, the Mahler was wonderful. I have three recordings of this piece--Solti and the Chicago Symphony on CD (London F35L-50050), Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Columbia Masterworks MS 7069), and Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony (RCA Victor Red Seal LM-2642), both on LP. The Leinsdorf recording has always been my favorite (in part because of the absolutely beautiful suit Leinsdorf is wearing in the cover photo--OK, that's not the best reason, but that suit is beautiful).

The performance last night was rather different from what I'm used to. Dudamel chose a very slow tempo. I think this worked against Mahler in the first movement. The opening, with its sustained notes, is already quite slow and the music seemed to lack focus as a result of the excessively languorous pace (and a restless audience didn't help). The remaining three movements, however, were highly persuasive. Again the conductor took what seemed to me some rather broad liberties with the tempo--this time not just slow overall, but using rubato liberally--stealing here, giving back there. Dudamel's reading was idiosyncratic, but it worked. He milked the score for every drop of expressiveness. Again the playing was startlingly crisp and together--the members of each section absolutely perfect in their unison--the kind of playing that gives you goosebumps, the kind of playing that can elicit involuntary giggling--unbridled joy. This is live music at its best. Dudamel clearly has something special. It was a privilege to hear the orchestra, despite the somewhat less successful first movement. The audience appeared nearly unanimous in its approval, rewarding the players and their leader with a standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

Fashion Note: Gustavo needs to talk to his tailor--His attire was cut very long in the back, in a way that seemed to accentuate his rather short stature. The opposite effect presumably would be more desirable.

(Photo of Gustavo Dudamel courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony. Photo by Mathias Bothor.)

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