Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Bruckner and Webern
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Gustavo Dudamel, in town for three weeks of concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, began his program Thursday night with Anton Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 10. The orchestra here is a small chamber ensemble. The pieces are miniatures, all five together lasting not even five minutes and the shortest clocking in at under half a minute.
The evening ended with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, a magnificent performance and an exceptionally spacious one. The symphony calls for a very large band, and the timing Thursday for its four movements was just under 75 minutes, a dozen more than what is typical these days from conductors under 80, or 50 years Dudamel’s seniors. (The program repeats Friday and Sunday at Disney and Saturday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.)
Two metabolic extremes were at play. Webern was a mayfly composer. To hear a full life in his miniatures requires experiencing time the way this insect with a lifespan as short as 30 minutes must. Opus 10 was written between 1911 and 1913, when Vienna was moving from the Romantic age to the Modern one and speed was a motivating factor.
But Webern, who also conducted, was known to forget all sense of time when rehearsing massive Bruckner or Mahler symphonies. I remember Arnold Elston, one of Webern’s few American pupils and a longtime music professor at UC Berkeley, describing how in rehearsal the composer loved to linger on single chords for extravagantly long periods of time, lost in their sonorities and reluctant to move on.
Dudamel’s approach of avoiding a middle ground was, thus, a wise one. By experiencing one extreme are we better able to understand the other. In Webern’s music every second is unique and matters. Each note is something to enter into exactly the same way the composer did when he rehearsed, even if here you only have a nanosecond in which to do so.
The Webern sparkled brightly and left phosphorescent traces. A solo violin line in the slow (everything is relative) third piece was but a few notes but nonetheless more than a fragment. From those few notes and the memory of them together the listener completed the melody in the imagination. In Webern what is substance and what is fancy are never certain.
In Bruckner there is no doubt, only certainty. That was the theme of Pacific Symphony’s special program built around Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony last week in Costa Mesa. The composer created masses of sound that over time erect towering sonic edifice.
The Seventh was Bruckner at his most lyrical and elegiac. He wrote it in memory of Wagner, whom he worshipped. At Dudamel’s tempos, harmonically viscous, long-limbed melodies flowed like lava, hot and heavy. The young conductor fears no climaxes, and the brass choirs, when unleashed, rang out without inhibition. When Bruckner resolved dissonances, he did so with the intention of showing that all is right in the world. That is another aspect of the composer Dudamel was not about to let pass lightly.
A 24-minute first movement, marked moderately fast but taken moderately slow, followed by an effusively drawn-out 26-minute slow movement meant maintaining a considerable heaviness. Such extravagantly slow conducting is macho conducting, the musical equivalent of holding heavy weights over your head for ages, or doing slow pull-ups for an hour. The drama is in the muscular tension, not the lowering of the weight or your body. Dudamel held that tension for remarkable amounts of time, but he wasn’t always sure what do with the codas.
In the Scherzo and Finale, he picked up the pace and upped the power. Again there were a few spots that didn’t quite fit, but only a few. And that means Brucknerians rejoice. Dudamel conducted this, his first Bruckner symphony in L.A., from memory and commanded spellbinding orchestral sonorities.
There was one other piece on the program, Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem for strings, which was added because the L.A. Phil will also play this concert in Costa Mesa as part of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s JapanOC festival.
The Requiem is the Japanese composer’s first notable work, written in 1957 as Takemitsu was recovering from tuberculosis. Like Webern and Bruckner, Takemitsu wrote music that insists on stopping and smelling the roses. But in the French-influenced early Takemitsu the perfume is everything.
The Philharmonic strings did not fully convey the impression of weightlessness that Takemitsu might have liked, but the textures were lush and Dudamel centered in on the Requiem’s meditative beauty.
-- Mark Swed
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $44-$167. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.
Also Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 2:30 p.m. Saturday. $55 to $400. www.philharmonicsociety.org.