Critic’s Notebook: Dudamel’s final L.A. Philharmonic tour concert

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What began as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Eat Your Heart Out” tour wound up, the orchestra’s president Deborah Borda joked Saturday night at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, the “Schadenfreude” tour. She was referring to the drubbing by critics the orchestra had received in several cities across the country in its first tour with its new music director, Gustavo Dudamel.

A backlash against Dudamel’s celebrity (“60 Minutes” caught up with him once more the previous Sunday) had been expected. It stung, but there were compensations. The halls have been alive with the sound of Dudamania.


This final concert Saturday night began with John Adams’ dense, jumpy, jazzy, hyperactive yet moody “City Noir,” written for the orchestra and Dudamel, and played here with a robust cockiness. Mahler’s First Symphony after intermission, given brazenly extravagant character, was bigger than life.

The laws of musical thermodynamics prescribe that the energy in excessively active musicians on stage transfers to the passive audience, assuming there are no heat sinks in the way. There were, this night, none. The energy in the room, after the jubilant final measures of Mahler, was euphoric. According to the decibel meter app on my cellphone, the applause noise level had reached the danger zone.

Even so, energy is the only measure. One common complaint among the critics (including after the orchestra’s first New York concert on Thursday) has been that Dudamel’s Philharmonic is not a pristine ensemble. The strings lack depth. The brass flub. Wind instruments are unable to trade off phrases so seamlessly that you can hardly tell who is playing.

Dudamel has been accused of thrusting Tchaikovsky and Mahler into unreasonable paroxysms of excitement. A rash inexperienced 29-year-old, he was found not to fathom the profound depths of a Mahler symphony (little matter that Mahler was around that age when he wrote his First Symphony). He was presented with the long road he must to traverse before he will be ready to convey Tchaikovsky’s exquisite suffering.

These are not invalid criticisms. But they are less about what the Philharmonic can do -- it is an incomparably versatile orchestra -- than what some listeners who know the scores expect Dudamel to do. An encore from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” Saturday sounded as though the strings had just used a new cream rinse to give the horsehairs on their bows new gorgeous full body. The brass? They were simply amazing in “City Noir,” handling fantastically difficult syncopations while sounding spontaneous and very, very hot.

The wind solos in Mahler’s symphony were, indeed, plenty awkward, each taking on quality of a specific character. A clarinet that is all clarinet will not blend with a bassoon that is all bassoon, but they can mate, which is something very different. Dudamel has a way of intentionally throwing players off to increase the tension.

Sure enough, Dudamel’s Mahler is messy. If you have preconceptions, they probably won’t be reinforced. And that is true even if your preconceptions are based on Dudamel’s performances of the Adams and the Mahler scores from the L.A. Philharmonic gala eight months ago and available on an already out-of-date DVD.

This all boils down to whom you trust. We are at the beginning of a journey (or “joy ride,” as a New York Times headline had it). If the process, the moment, matters, hop aboard. Something will happen. But that includes likely accidents from time to time, and I can’t say they won’t be serious.

Saturday’s concert did not have a dull moment. One composer in the audience said it made her ears sing afterward. The deafening cheers made my ears ring for a long time. And all the excitement seemed too much for uptight Lincoln Center guards keeping me and mob at bay as we tried unsuccessfully to get backstage. Classical music isn’t supposed to be like this, which, of course, is what the reviews had been saying all along.

-- Mark Swed, reporting from New York


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