Friday, January 8, 2010

No podium, no curtain

Jennifer and I had the pleasure of watching the DVD of Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night. I ordered the DVD from on Tuesday and it arrived in two days without any special shipping. There are so few packages in the various delivery systems of this country that what few there are just zip right on through, arriving promptly. A subtle sign of an excess in capacity – the Great Recession is with us still.

The quality of the sound on the DVD is great but not noticeably better than the recording Jennifer purchased off iTunes and gave to me for Christmas. Nevertheless, watching a classical music performance has always given me an added dimension of joy and this was no exception.

Several things make this DVD better than merely listening to the excellent recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. This is the first time, other than in photographs, I have ever seen the amazing Walt Disney Concert Hall. The orchestra is situated more or less in the center of the space, toward the front but not in front. There are seats surrounding the orchestra which is positioned more or less among the audience, without a curtain, integrated not segregated.

Observing the animated conducting style of this young, energetic Venezuelan conductor compliments the smile you feel inside listening to this music. Dudamel’s facial expressions are diverse, his eye direct and intense toward specific sections of the orchestra at specific times. He grimaces, he smiles, he grits his teeth. His arms sweep, wave round, gouge, the baton a wand of fire. At delicate moments the arms slow, elbows are tucked and he leads with just his fingers. His body contorts, he practically leaps, leans back on his heels, plants his feet firmly and commands stiffly. All this is Dudamel in action. Great to watch with his dark, curly Latin hair often bobbing around like some wooly crown.

Part of the reason for purchasing this DVD is that, in addition to Mahler’s “Titan”, the concert features as a warm-up the world premiere performance of City Noir by John Adams. Of course, you know by now that Adams is one of my favorite living composers. The piece is wonderful, jazzy, urbane, much more complex than the Mahler symphony, but that is typical of contemporary classical music. As is Adams’ style, the work is melodic and layered, yielding a rewardingly rich, highly engaging sound, at times soothing, at times challenging, at times surprisingly forceful, with large strings, plentiful percussion, powerful horns. Traces of minimalism are throughout, but only now and then. Adams has matured to be distinctively modern without pigeon-holing. Several superb solos are sprinkled throughout the 30-plus minute piece. A saxophone shines as the best offering in this aspect of the work. A bright, new, fulfilling work of classical music first performed in October! Normally, I don’t get to hear entertaining new stuff until in comes out on CD several years after it was composed. Not this time. How lucky I am!

Adams is in attendance at the concert (sitting next to actor Tom Hanks about half way up in the audience). He comes down to take a bow at the conclusion of the work. A standing ovation, naturally. Both composer and conductor share the glow of the moment. Both point to the saxophonist, who takes his bow to a roaring explosion from the crowd. Several other musicians are directed to stand in their turn. Adams is so obviously appreciative.

Then comes the Mahler. I know this composition so well and, by now, I have become quite familiar with this interpretation of the work. I won’t comment here on the playing itself (see the previous post for that) except to say, once again, this is the greatest First Symphony ever composed. The surprise on the DVD is that Dudamel conducts the entire work without the aid of a score. He used one intently for the Adams piece but Dudamel knows this Mahler so well he doesn’t need to see a single note. I’m not sure how common this is in live classical performances, my life is rather shamefully limited to a few dozen that I’ve actually seen. But, I’ve never seen a conductor take on a large work – or any work for that matter – without a podium, completely from memory.

In further research since my last post, I have learned that Dudamel – even though he is only 28 – has already conducted Mahler’s First a dozen times professionally with other orchestras around the world and often practiced conducting the score as a music student. He is intimate with the work. So, while it is still a rather audacious choice for an inaugural, it is a comfortable one for Dudamel.

Being a DVD there is a bonus feature documentary included. It features most of the principle players in the LA Philharmonic discussing what it is like to have the young Dudamel in charge. Most admit they have been playing music longer than Dudamel has been alive. Without exception they appreciate his ability and several are hopeful that this is the beginning of one of those great periods in classical collaborative performance that come along only ever so often. Like Bernstein in New York. Or Solti in Chicago. Or von Karajan in Berlin.

That might be stretching things a bit, but I’ll certainly stay tuned.

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