Genius, Age 27
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Hes real, he's ours: Gustavo Dudamel.
You could almost say they were made for each other, even to a similarity of hairdo — Hector Berlioz, who astounded musical society with his Symphonie Fantastique at the age of 27, and the Philharmonic’s maestro-designate, Gustavo Dudamel, who at the same age delivered Berlioz’s almost-masterpiece to a capacity, cheering Disney Hall audience last weekend.
The Symphonie Fantastique, concocted by Berlioz as a kind of woozy allegory for his unrequited passion for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson (whom he later married and came to regret), makes its way uneasily through the repertory. Devotees of French music — the formidable Nadia Boulanger, for one — have told me that they would prefer that Berlioz hadn’t existed at all. Too much of his heart appears on his sleeve, in this work and in some others, violating the easy generalities that one likes to posit about the French musical spirit. Perhaps it’s necessary, therefore, for a young spirit — a preternaturally wise 27-year-old musical spirit from another continent — to shake things up a bit. Enter Gustavo.
Dudamel’s exuberant, but also admirably wise, performance honored small details — the balance of brass tone against strings in the “Ball” movement, for example — that I hadn’t noticed in half a hundred previous live encounters. His performance had surge and impulse and, in the glorious vulgarities of the final movements, a command of orchestral balance that preserved sonorities. All repeats were honored, allowing for Berlioz’s formal design to take its proper shape. In his few times here, Dudamel has mastered the shape of Disney Hall, so that some of the magical acoustic moments in the score — the conversations between the shepherds in the slow movement, with woodwinds spread far apart — were captured in proper dimension. It was, all told, a performance of the work in real proportion, not only thrilling in the grandiose moments but eloquent and captivating in ways that might have astonished the composer himself.
Esa-Pekka Salonen provided a shadowy presence for his successor-to-be in the form of his 20-minute orchestral work Insomnia, which opened the program; Prokofiev’s jaunty First Piano Concerto, a showoff piece nicely performed by the young Simon Trpceski followed, music useful only to show young Trpceski’s power to bang on the keyboard. (A Debussy arabesque, a charming encore, showed off much more.)
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Earlier in the week, Dudamel was pressed into service in one of the Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Society programs, as second violinist in Mozart’s wonderful A-major Clarinet Quintet. As with the orchestral concert, this drew a full, cheering house, for any chance to see, no less hear, the town’s latest wonder boy, but perhaps not so much to hear chamber music and obey its rules. As it happened, there wasn’t much to hear; a second-fiddle role in a Mozart Quintet doesn’t consist of much in the way of solo ops. Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour had asked the crowd, please, not to applaud between movements “unless you absolutely have to.” Apparently, the crowd absolutely had to, because there was applause after every movement, ruining Michele Zukovsky’s sublime performance in the Clarinet Quintet and the whole of Mozart’s C-major String Quintet as well. Anyone who applauds, or even breathes, after the slow movement of the Clarinet Quintet just hasn’t been listening.
Which brings up a question I’ve been meaning to ask, or a complaint I’ve been meaning to air: What has happened to chamber music in our town? Chamber music is the result of playing together over long periods by ensembles, who develop a oneness of style and become known for an attitude toward performance, the same way that symphony orchestras hone their tone and their personality by working under a specific conductor. However skilled the individual members of the Philharmonic, I do not hear this quality in the Chamber Music Society concerts I’ve attended at Disney Hall. The Mozart Quintet performance with Dudamel is a case in point; he was in town, therefore available, and so it was a good PR trick to add him to the Mozart program. Immediately, that’s no longer chamber music. Janine Jansen, visiting violin soloist from the Netherlands, sat in on the program the week before; again, that becomes celebrity booking, not chamber music.
I mourn the passing of long-time-constituted string quartets, and chamber-music series with permanent memberships, playing repertory. It’s one more of the losses we suffered when LACMA shut down the Monday Evening Concerts, because one of my last memories from that series was the Parisii Quartet coming in with late Beethoven quartets. I long to hear the Cavatina of Opus 130 the way they played it the last time here. The Guarneri Quartet has disbanded after a distinguished career; I never got to hear the Alban Berg. Memories of the Sequoia Quartet still haunt me; I am tempted by new names in the New York ads, but I don’t see them here. There is hope: The Calder Quartet sound better all the time, and they have begun to play late Beethoven quartets. I just hope that the Colburn School, their local base, will have the good sense to hold on to them long enough to develop a repertory, and reveal to generations of bright-eyed students, pushing into those splendid new buildings on Grand Avenue, the miracles of Opus 130 and the Mozart Quintet, and when to applaud and when not to.