Music review: Gustavo Dudamel starts off the L.A. Phil year with new beginnings

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On the heels of a late-December PBS broadcast of this season’s Los Angeles Philharmonic opening night gala, “Celebración”; an hour-long special on Gustavo Dudamel hosted by Tavis Smiley; the Berlin Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve concert conducted by Dudamel (and currently on view at; and the Dude’s comfortable chitchat with Jay Leno on the ‘Tonight Show’ Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic started the year in Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday keen to capitalize on the moment.

The program, when repeated Sunday afternoon, will be the first of its controversial ‘LA Phil Live’ simulcasts in movie theaters from shore to shore. It will launch the orchestra’s first European tour with Dudamel later this month. And since everyone can’t fit into four Disney concerts, be accommodated by 400 U.S. and Canadian screens or make it to a few big-deal concert halls on the continent, the program is also being recorded for the L.A. Phil’s next iTunes download.


Once more, the Dudamel Express has audaciously -– recklessly? -- left the station.

Halfway through his second season as the orchestra’s music director, Dudamel is still new, and thus far nearly everything he conducts here, he does so for the first time. That was true Thursday, but the two works of the first half -– John Adams’ “Slonimsky’s Earbox” and Leonard Bernstein’s First Symphony (“Jeremiah”) –- were also Dudamel firsts. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the concluding work, has, however, long been in his blood. It and Beethoven’s Fifth, recorded with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra four years ago, comprised Dudamel’s first CD.

The L.A. Phil’s first performance of Adams’ 13-minute splashy curtain-raiser was conducted by the composer in 1997, two years after it was written. The following season, Esa-Pekka Salonen took the piece on tour in Europe. For this year’s tour, it will be the closest the orchestra gets to hometown music.

Adams is the L.A. Phil creative chair and Nicolas Slonimsky -- the Russian conductor, musical encylopedist, writer, theorist, teacher, wit –- lived much of his long life in Los Angeles (he died in 1995 at 101) and had various associations with the L.A. Phil. He also paved the ‘Tonight Show’ way for Dudamel as a guest of Johnny Carson, playing Chopin on the piano with an orange.

Adams captured Slonimsky’s antic side in a twitchy score full of minimalist tricks and sudden splashes of unexpected beauty. Dudamel made the score dance, sparkle and shimmer, polishing rough edges and glorying in that surprising beauty.

Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony also had its first L.A. Phil performance led by the composer. A wartime score from 1942, written at 24, it has an oracular first movement (“Prophecy”), a breezy Scherzo (“Profanation”) with a Broadway center, and an aching final movement with a text from “Lamentations” sung in Hebrew by a mezzo soprano. It is, already, all Bernstein.

Dudamel’s performance was slower and grander than the three Bernstein recorded (in 1945, 1961 and 1977). All are around 25 minutes; Dudamel used up nearly half an hour. When Bernstein conducted “Jeremiah” with the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in 1983, he seemed angry and uncertain how to recapture his youth. In 1987, he conducted it again at the Bowl, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic and seeming resigned -- a sad and philosophical musical god questioning a higher deity.


Dudamel’s Bernstein is that of a youth (Dudamel turns 30 Jan. 26) taking up where an old man left off. Sometimes that works. The sound he got from the orchestra was big, bold and fabulous, but I think he asked too much of the music. Kelley O’Connor was the robust soloist, although not a word of her Hebrew was intelligible.

Give him a few years, though. Four years ago, Dudamel’s Beethoven Seventh was an exciting, unpredictable rollercoaster ride. Now every phrase speaks with added life; momentum matters more. Before his Seventh was moment to moment, body or soul. Now it is body and soul, all one. The orchestra played as if on fire, accentuating syncopations in the feverish Finale as if it were a Cuban salsa.

Will this play in Peoria, Ill., (at the Willow Knolls 14 Sunday ) or on the road in Old-World capitals such as Budapest or Vienna? We’ll find out. But let me salute the L.A. audience. Disney was packed Thursday, the crowd diverse. Quiet, alert and alive during the Beethoven, listeners jumped up with audible joy at the end. If that response can be exported, this orchestra will really be in business.

-- Mark Swed

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $44-$167. (323) 850-2000 or