Critic’s Notebook: Dudamel takes the L.A. Philharmonic to New York

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Reviews of and reactions to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first tour through America with its new music director, Gustavo Dudamel, have ranged from ecstatic to snarky. Audiences have been, reportedly, enthusiastic. Some big-city music critics, meanwhile, have come carefully armed against hype.
Going a step further than the dubious reviewers in San Francisco and Chicago, Peter Dobrin, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Wednesday’s concert in Verizon Hall, chose not to assume that Dudamel’s hiring was a cynical ploy on the part of the L.A. Philharmonic. Instead, he chalked the whole hustle up to us, in the unwashed West, naively “charting the currents of [Dudamel’s] dark curls” as if they represented the actual brain power underneath of a music thinker.

Thursday, the Philharmonic reached its final destination, New York, for the first of two concerts at Lincoln Center. After a performance on Friday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, the new music director will finish his first L.A. Philharmonic season Saturday with the same John Adams/Mahler program he led at his Wall Disney Concert Hall gala in October.


This first Avery Fisher Hall concert began with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “Age of Anxiety,” and at intermission an editor, extremely well-connected in the classical music scene here, asked me if I had noticed what was special about the crowd.

There had been a considerable amount of rustling and coughing during the quiet clarinet opening, adding an unwanted layer of unease to an “Age of Anxiety.” The symphony is also a piano concerto, and the audience was no more polite to pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in his soft solo passages. Plus, I overheard Alec Baldwin, who happened to be seated near me, make it clear he was immune to Dudamel hard-sell.

“They’ve come for blood,” I answered my friend. “Absolutely not,” he said. “They’re here to have a good time. And how often do you see that in Avery Fisher Hall?”

I had misread the signs. New Yorkers quiet down when they are ready and not before, so that is nothing to take personally. Fisher was packed (both L.A. Philharmonic programs sold out long ago). And the response, for Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony after intermission, proved tremendous.

The third movement is an exciting march that often gets applause. Still, it is rare and thrilling to see New York classical music mavens give a thunderous standing ovation in the middle of a symphony. (New York being New York, a few people also took this as great opportunity to leave, presumably to beat the rush for a cab or to land a coveted outdoor table at crowded nearby restaurants on a pleasantly warm evening.)

Dudamel sometimes likes to let pieces that are dramatically dark and death-haunted, such as Verdi’s Requiem and this “Pathetique,” remain unworldly as long as possible before applause interrupts. In Los Angeles, he was allowed a full minute of silence after the “Pathetique.” On the road, he apparently had mixed success standing still after the piece ends, getting away with from 20 to 40 seconds. I’m told that in Philly a cellphone rang (and rang) during the last two sad minutes of the symphony and applause began within two seconds afterward, further evidence, no doubt, that Dudamel attracts all the wrong people.

New Yorkers abhor a vacuum and gave Dudamel about 30 seconds. The conductor looked unhappy, but I thought it, in this town, a triumph. The ovation was a big one. On the top balcony, fans unveiled a large Venezuelan flag, which they waved and danced under. Jubilation in a Fisher concert is notable; jubilation anywhere after Tchaikovsky’s farewell to life is astonishing.

Hearing the L.A. Philharmonic in Fisher is, in many ways, a different experience from concerts in Disney Hall. The New York Philharmonic does not play on risers; the L.A. players had them Thursday. These risers, more minimal than those at Disney, probably did help make certain instrumental details transparent. Ultimately, though, this is a hall that produces a wall of sound. Disney has a levitating acoustic. In Fisher, the music comes at you like a speeding subway train impossible to dodge.

The acoustics made Dudamel seem a more aggressive conductor than he does at home. Bernstein’s symphony suffered balance problems between piano and orchestra, but the work is surprisingly rare, even in this hallowed Bernstein ground, and it was seen as savvy and much-appreciated programming. Dudamel played up the extremes of Tchaikovsky -- ethereal pianissimos were invaded by dramatic theatrical assaults. This evoked, for more than one old timer, the young Bernstein.

Dudamel’s encore was the waltz from Bernstein’s Divertimento. It was exquisite. As in L.A., it was little recognized and much admired. Even Alec Baldwin, possibly recognizing on some level a kindred New York spirit after all, wondered what it was.

--Mark Swed, from New York