Music review: Gustavo Dudamel ends ‘Brahms Unbound’ with a bang

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For the fifth week in a row, Gustavo Dudamel was to have begun, anew, the unbinding of Brahms in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night. The concept of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Brahms Unbound” festival was for new music to bounce off Brahms orchestral standards at every concert.

But the Polish composer Henryk Górecki died in November before finishing his Fourth Symphony, which was commissioned to be paired with Brahms’ Fourth. Brahms’ Double Concerto, with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon, was the replacement.


Even so, Sunday’s matinee will be simulcast in movie houses throughout the land, and the weekend’s concerts are also being recorded live for distribution on iTunes June 21. Without the premiere, this concert may not any longer be news, but the performances were riveting, and I hope cinema screens and MP3 files can capture the excitement. The Dudamel honeymoon shows no sign of abating.

The orchestra played brilliantly. The Capuçon brothers were electrifying. The audience not only stood and cheered (audiences do that everywhere all the time), but people waved their hands exultantly in the air at the end, as if at a pop concert or sports event. For two hours Thursday night, sitting in Disney felt like sitting on top of the orchestra world.

The Double Concerto for violin and cello was Brahms’ last orchestral work, written when he was 54 in 1887, 10 years before his death. With a grandfatherly beard, he appeared older than his years. The autumnally lyrical and harmonically probing music of his last decade all but defines the concept of a late style.

The concerto has an odd magic, looking back to the vital earlier Brahms violin concerto and piano concertos but with a wistful tone. It opens with an intense cello cadenza followed by a rhapsodic one for the violin. Brahms treats the soloists like an old couple, comfortably able to finish each other’s sentences. Even the folk-dance finale is more the memory of dancing than actually kicking up now arthritic feet.

That’s the Brahms Double, but it wasn’t the Brahms Double this time.

The Capuçon brothers, who are French, play with an athletic yet rhapsodic verve. They are showy yet elegant, fraternally competitive yet able to speak with one poetic mind.

Dudamel set a forceful tone but also stayed out of his soloists’ way. For an encore, the brothers played the Handel Passacaglia arranged by John Halvorsen with breathtaking speed and flair.


Two and a half years ago, Dudamel conducted Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in Orange County on tour with the Israel Philharmonic. It was a youthful, exuberant performance, full of event, every moment an aha moment.

The performance of the work Thursday was much changed. There was still the sense of event, but what was new was the richness of texture. After two seasons as the L.A. Phil’s music director, Dudamel has developed an orchestral sound that is thick and muscular while still maintaining the flexibility and lightning reflexes that were a hallmark of the Esa-Pekka Salonen era.

The Fourth this time had different aha moments, as Dudamel turned his attention to bringing out inner lines. But mainly it was the intensity, the sense of the symphony as a living and breathing organism, that felt new.

In the three earlier Brahms symphonies and the composer’s “German Requiem,” Dudamel had experimented with tempos (often slow) and different ways of balancing instrumental weight. Reaching the Fourth, he no longer seemed to be trying so many new ideas. He dug deep, no longer the Dude but a master.

Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 was a playful surprise encore, and Dudamel became the irrepressible Dude once more. He surfed the popular score, holding back, as if his board were suspended in air, waiting for the swells, and then back to making a very big splash.

I don’t normally approve of popcorn at cinema concerts, but I may have to relent if Dudamel keeps up this kind of thing. The cinema crowd Sunday should plan for intense adult drama, action, adventure, a final chase scene and even a bit of comedy.


Not bad, and maybe unheard-of, for an all-Brahms concert.


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-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic ‘Brahms Unbound’ with Gustavo Dudamel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $23.75 to $177. (323) 850-2000 or