My relationship with Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra has been historic and loving. I attended the world premiere, as a second-balcony usher in Boston’s Symphony Hall, December 1, 1944. Backstage after the performance, on my way to change out of uniform, I met Bartók and shook his hand. The look in that man’s eyes, already ravaged by the leukemia that would take his life nine months later, remains with me always. That memory, in fact, is the core of my regard for that work as one of the miracles of its time: the extraordinary contrast between the devastation I read in those eyes that night and the magnificent strength, the affirmation — even the rich, delicious humor — of that score. The paradox of this robust, youthful music from the pen of an elderly invalid (working, in fact, in his hospital bed) goes to explain the further marvel of last week’s wondrous performance at Disney Hall, with the latest phenomenon on the horizon — a real one, for a change — leading our Philharmonic through every nuance of this marvelous score, its ancient wisdom and its contemporary, youthful exuberance.
His name, which surely must come as no surprise by now as the PR machines have been grinding away, is Gustavo Dudamel; he is 26; he hails from Venezuela, where he has been a product of that country’s extraordinarily enlightened musical-education program; and he has already had musicians and audiences throughout Europe singing and orchestrating his praises. His North American debut was at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, with Tchaikovsky and Revueltas; last week’s program contained, besides the Bartók, Kodály’s Galanta Dances and the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto. Questions remain, therefore, about his more, let’s say, “classical” leanings. They can be answered in part by a new Beethoven CD on Deutsche Grammophon (solid, no serious errors, no reason to trade in your Carlos Kleiber recordings) and by a Don Giovanni at La Scala that was generally regarded as too much too soon.
Last week’s concert may have left a few minor questions unanswered, but handled the rest of them loud and clear; not merely the latest package to tumble off the prodigy assembly line, young Gustavo is an authentic talent. He knows what he’s doing, is greatly gifted in conveying that knowledge to the people around him and, better yet, seems uncommonly able to make those people work with him. Details in the Bartók that I have sometimes taken for granted — the strings’ “buzzing” in the Intermezzo interrotto — seemed freshly profiled. Something comes across, a sense of the joy of music making. At the end of each piece, as the crowd goes bonkers out front, young Gustavo strolls through the orchestra, shaking hands all the way through the ranks. Maybe it’s only an act, but the conviviality it creates was something you could feel. No, it didn’t make the Rach 3 any less the overstuffed bundle of trash than the work truly is; not even the excellent Yefim Bronfman could work that level of miracle.
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Comparisons between Dudamel and Britain’s Simon Rattle have been frequently voiced, and Rattle has, indeed, been eloquent in praise of this remarkable newcomer. It’s not just the mop of curly hair, however; if you watch early Rattle DVDs — the “Leaving Home” series on ArtHaus, for example — you see that same eagerness to put things across, that obsession almost to reach into the orchestra and pull things out into the light, that made everything in last week’s concert, wherever you sat in Disney Hall, more vivid, more thrilling. We need conductors like that; now we have one more.
With five movements in the Bartók concerto, extroverted music in an enthralling performance, you might have expected some amount of renegade applause between movements, but there was none, the ultimate homage to the young maestro and his worthy impulses. The night before, there had been chamber music in that hall: Haydn and Schubert performed by Philharmonic members, classy, subtle stuff for an audience, you would think, aware that applause between movements in chamber music is never — repeat, never — done. (There’s even a full page of Roz Chast cartoons in the program book about concert etiquette, including applause between movements, maybe a little too cute to be taken as seriously as it deserves.) Still, there was applause — hearty applause — after each and every movement, and no attempt by players to wince, scowl or otherwise register displeasure at the practice. Go figure.
I am of several minds on the matter of interstitial applause in the concert hall. I would gladly applaud movements two and four of the Bartók concerto, just on the off chance that the composer’s spirit might be on hand to appreciate my appreciation of those sections’ remarkable cleverness. But the listener who violates the silence that fulfills the spirit following a hearing of the slow movement of Schubert’s B-flat Trio, played as it was last week by Bronfman, Bing Wang and Ben Hong, simply cannot have been welcoming that music into his or her bloodstream. For such an attack of anemia at its most pernicious, perhaps a compulsory pair of boxing gloves, handed out by ushers to each auditor errant, might do the trick.