Music review: Dudamel is back

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Thursday night, Gustavo Dudamel conducted Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony without undo angst at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The happiest conductor in America has come home.

When Dudamel took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the end of September in an exuberant free Hollywood Bowl concert that was flashed around the world, he became the most attention-getting new music director in America since Bernstein had been the first American hired by the New York Philharmonic half a century earlier.

But after Dudamel’s concerts here in October and November, he devoted himself to his other orchestras – the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela and the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. The gap, the Los Angeles Philharmonic says, is an anomaly that couldn’t be helped, since Dudamel’s winter had long been booked. To make up for it, the Philharmonic’s music director is back officiating his first festival here, “Americas & Americans,” which is meant to link lands north and south by common threads.

There is, of course, an awful lot to link. Still, three weeks of concerts by an American orchestra without a note of European music is refreshing. And when you are willing to look for common ground, coincidences begin to not seem like coincidences at all.

Nothing overtly tied together Thursday’s program, which Dudamel began by beating the drums with Carlos Chávez’s Toccata for Percussion. Peter Lieberson’s beautiful, heartrending “Neruda Songs,” which followed, marked the fifth anniversary of the score’s world premiere by the Philharmonic. And Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” needed no excuse other than the fact that we don’t hear it very often.


Yet, there were no jolts because, I think, the musical languages were not foreign. Chavez’s piece for six percussionists came from a suggestion in 1942 from John Cage. After hearing the Mexican composer conduct his “Sinfonia India’ (which is now a Dudamel specialty and one he owes L.A.), Cage said, “It is the land we all walk on made audible.”

The Toccata, in fact, walked many lands, from ancient Aztec to modernist. Percussion is no longer revolution, as it was then, but is now vernacular, and Dudamel exulted in the sounds of drums and cymbals, of glockenspiel and gongs.

“Neruda Songs” are Lieberson’s settings of five poems of love and loss by Pablo Neruda that the composer wrote for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Suffering from cancer, she didn’t have long to live when she sang their premiere in Disney with unforgettable passion and concentration. The poems are a lesson in transcending what the Chilean poet called “little drops of anguish.”

Kelley O’Connor was the lovely soloist with Dudamel. These autumnal songs are not, for her, personal, and she is a singer at the beginning of her career and one wise enough to let them speak (sing) for themselves. We may not have gotten past memorializing one of the greatest singers of modern memory, but “Neruda Songs” are about love as lived not possessed. Faith here is understood as accepting insecurity.

“Age of Anxiety” is a flip side of “Neruda Songs,” a piece by a phenomenally gifted young composer who all but exalted in little drops of anguish. Bernstein called the score his Second Symphony because he intended to write one for the Boston Symphony. What he really wound up writing was a piano concerto in the form of a tone poem in which he was originally the soloist.

The inspiration was W.H. Auden’s long, difficult poem “The Age of Anxiety.” The British poet provided Bernstein with three men and a woman in a wartime bar, their desperation fueled by liquor. They wind up in the girl’s apartment, party and pass out. What attracted Bernstein to all this, he later said, was the means by which their false hilarity could lead to nobility.

Much of the score was written in Taos, New Mexico, in 1948. That summer Bernstein turned 30 a few miles away from where Lieberson, who lives in Santa Fe, wrote “Neruda Songs.” An incredibly social, room-dominating personality, Bernstein could also be the loneliest and most haunted man in the room. He sought loneliness in the desert. But all his life loneliness also sought him during his famous nights of insomnia.

Two mournful clarinets, sad drunks, begin the prologue. A flute plays an inconsolable descending line and then the piano begins to entertain us. Two sets of seven short variations are linked not by a shared theme but by one melodic idea leading conversationally to the next. The second part opens with a Dirge, heavy as all world’s pain, which is followed with a miraculous transition by a party scene -- a sexy jazz section for piano, percussion and solo trumpet. But sex is desperation and Bernstein, through some fancy musical sleight of hand, produces consolation in a radiant rising sun.

Bernstein thought big. And Dudamel played him big. He conducted with the vigor of the young Bernstein and the rapture of the old Bernstein. He rushed through some details in the variations and lingered sweetly on others. He made the Dirge horrific.

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s versatility was a great boon, as was his clear tone and rhythmic precision. The jazz section showed him off best, while Joanne Pierce Martin’s distant-sounding upright piano in the orchestra subtly called us back from the fun.

The ending of the symphony is overblown and Bernstein struggled with it most of his life. He added a piano cadenza in 1965. But he never made the Epilogue work until he conducted the work with the Vienna Philharmonic late in his life. In that profound performance, which was captured on video, he was magically both magisterial and inconclusive.

Dudamel ended very grandly, not quite willing to accept inconclusion. But there was much that was magnificent in a Philharmonic performance that did succeed in making the land we walk on audible.

-- Mark Swed

‘America and Americans: Dudamel conducts Bernstein and Lieberson.’ 8 p.m. Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Limited ticket availability. 323.850.2000 or