Review

Gustavo Dudamel celebrates his 36th birthday with some Schoenberg

Instruct Gustavo Dudamel not to conduct; he conducts.

Thursday was the Los Angeles Philharmonic music and artistic director’s 36th birthday. As Dudamel walked off the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage before taking his final bow at the end of his program of works by Schoenberg and Mozart, players in the orchestra surreptitiously placed sheet music on their stands and turned them around so nothing would catch the conductor’s eye.

Pianist Emanuel Ax, wearing a black sweater and to make him look (not very convincingly) like a stagehand, wheeled out a birthday cake in the shape of Frank Gehry’s concert hall. As the orchestra was about to strike up “Happy Birthday,” with the audience singing along, Dudamel’s boss, the orchestra President and CEO Deborah Borda, asked the concertmaster to give the upbeat.

“Maestro,” she ordered, turning to Dudamel, “You don’t conduct!”

Though beaming, Dudamel instinctively began to shape the song’s climax with his arms. He gave the cut off behind his back.

The fact is, Dudamel is on top of the conducting world. He is just back from his historic appearance as the youngest conductor ever to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic’s 2017 New Year’s Concert, broadcast around the world, giving him classical music’s largest audience (there no doubting these crowd numbers).

The CD is out this week (video comes in March), but a hi-resolution download released earlier this month is the best way to discover how Dudamel brought swinging new life to the Viennese waltz and to what had become a pretty moldy event.

With Schoenberg and Mozart, Vienna remained on his mind this week in L.A. But so was Hollywood.

It has taken Dudamel a long while to finally get around to Schoenberg, one of the greatest and most influential of the Austrian and German 1930s’ L.A. émigrés. Stravinsky, that other great L.A. music émigré, has been ever more popular and a much easier audience sell.  Stravinsky, whose influence on Latin American composers was great, is also a composer unquestionably in Dudamel’s blood.

Yet Schoenberg, for all the fear that his 12-tone system put into the modern musical world and for the fact that his attempt to undo tonality didn’t last, was arguably the greatest single shaper of 20th century music. He demonstrated how to create atmosphere like no composer before him. His reliance on methodology changed music not only as an example for the post-World War II avant-garde but also for the Minimalist rebellion to it.

We like, moreover, to credit a more conservative Austrian émigré, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, as originating the symphonic film score in the mid-1930s. But it was Schoenberg’s brief “Accompaniment to a Film Scene,” which began Thursday’s program, that demonstrated how to create cinematic atmosphere, the kind of atmosphere that made film noir film noir, that made radio mystery drama a great success in the days before TV and that then enlivened TV (where would “Twilight Zone” have been with its Schoenberg-inspired music?) and continues to inform modern film music. It is no coincidence that some of Hollywood’s most important film composers studied with Schoenberg when he taught at USC and UCLA.

The “Film Scene,” written in 1930 at the dawn of the talkies while Schoenberg was still in Europe, is imaginary film music meant to stir up dread with its eerie sound effects and unsettlingly fleeting themes. The Hollywood composers knew it all along. The L.A. Phil first played it in 1933.  

Dudamel went through the score quickly, a little too quickly, not quite letting it have its inner light. But he kept the rhythmic energy high and knew how to make the big moments explode.

Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, written in L.A. during the early years of World War II and Schoenberg’s last major orchestral work (he died in 1951), has a lot to say about both Vienna and Hollywood. It begins with a catchy, if complex 12-tone, waltz in the piano. Originally commissioned by the pianist and Hollywood celebrity Oscar Levant, it is a concerto with a kick in its step as it modernizes an old Mozartean tradition.

Modernists disapproved of its classical conventions, but Schoenberg was presciently considering what of the Old World is a value and what of danger. He looked back at his homeland in horror. The waltz can’t stay on track, and sometimes the atmosphere becomes frightening. It is a concerto in which the upbeat is more important than the downbeat, rhythmically but not necessarily emotionally. The foot doesn’t quite know where to take the next step.

Ax brought grace and brilliance to the performance but also an emotional hesitancy that resonates in uncertain music and uncertain times. A hint of the waltzing Dudamel in Vienna a few weeks earlier met the Hollywood and America of today in his conducting, which was rhythmically acute and ever at Ax’s service.  The name of Schoenberg may still scare audiences away, but the concerto got a standing ovation from a full house.

The program’s Mozart complement included two middle-period works not heard all that often, the Piano Concerto No. 14 and the “Paris” Symphony (No. 31). There are few storm clouds in either. Ax brought the wondrous lyricism he is know for to one of Mozart’s more lyric concertos.

The “Paris” Symphony is full of good spirits. Most conductors let it be. Once more, you cannot tell Dudamel not to conduct. Instead, he  opened up the “Paris.”

The symphony can make a big sound, giving horns and trumpets a prominence, and Dudamel let it. But he also boldly went inside the score, finding life in inner details.

All we need to do now is tell Dudamel he can’t do the same with Schoenberg, and he won’t be able to stop himself.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown Los Angeles

When: 8:00 p.m., Fri. and Sat.

Cost: $75 - $211

Info: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.org 

mark.swed@latimes.com

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