Review

Night of connections, musical and personal, for Gustavo Dudamel, L.A. Phil

Gustavo Dudamel and Esa-Pekka Salonen share a hug on the Disney Hall stage

Sometimes, as the winter season of a symphony orchestra cruises along, it’s diverting to muse upon connections -- either within a particular program or between that program and surrounding ones. Some connections are intended, and others are left to our imaginations.

Take Thursday night’s program at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where interconnections were fusing everywhere you looked.

For a start, two of the three pieces that Gustavo Dudamel conducted were inspired by paintings --  Rachmaninoff’s moody tone poem “The Isle of the Dead” from a once-very-popular land and waterscape of the same name by Arnold Böcklin, and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” from a gallery of artworks by Viktor Hartmann.

A week ago, Dudamel performed another “The Isle of the Dead” setting by Max Reger, written only four years after Rachmaninoff’s. Next week, the L.A. Phil plays some more Rachmaninoff – the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

Dudamel could have selected a third art-inspired piece from the last century -- say, Hindemith’s “Nobilissima Visione” or something along those lines. Instead, he went for a piece based upon a three-dimensional shape, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Helix,” which set off a different set of connections.

There was the unusual sight of two L.A. Phil music directors, former and current, hugging each other  onstage. Dudamel’s repeat performance of “Helix” on Saturday will be simulcast across the street into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to accompany L.A. Dance Project as part of the Music Center’s 50th anniversary celebration.

It would have been nostalgically nice to see the Phil actually playing in its former home of 39 years -- kind of like the Dodgers playing a game in their old home, the Coliseum, in 2008 on their 50th anniversary in L.A. -- but this connection will have to be virtual.

“Helix” is basically a musical coil that begins almost in a dream-like haze and accelerates and thickens and tightens until the overloaded structure comes to a screaming halt just short of the nine-minute mark. To this, Dudamel injected additional frenzy and a near-swinging quality down the stretch that built upon the performances by the composer.

In “The Isle of the Dead” -- which also has a very persuasive composer-conducted recording from 1929 as a model -- Dudamel firmly kept the barcarolle rhythm swimming and swirling, with some of his characteristically thrusting phrasings intervening. Though he whipped up the two climaxes hard, especially the second one, overall Dudamel was in no hurry and the haunting opening returned peacefully enough at the close.

Now and then, perhaps fearing overexposure, someone sets aside the often-played Ravel orchestration of “Pictures” and tries another; Stephane Denève surveyed the Stokowski version only last August at Hollywood Bowl.

Dudamel, though, reverted back to Ravel -- at first with broad tempos and heavy textures bordering upon torpor until the “Chicks” and “Limoges” woke everyone up. Toward the end, “Baba-Yaga” struck some fire and “The Great Gate of Kiev” made its usual stately, high-volume effect.

Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $26.50-$212; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

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