Music review: Gustavo Dudamel and Lang Lang together for the first time

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Gustavo Dudamel and Lang Lang, respectively 30 and 29, are by far the two most popular and electrifying classical musicians of their generation. Tuesday night they performed together for the first time, providing a glut of star power to open the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s classical music season at the Hollywood Bowl. The program, which will be repeated Thursday, was all Russian. It ended with Dudamel at his most memorable in a magnificent account of “Pictures at an Exhibition”

But the clear draw was the Dudamel/Lang Lang collaboration. Their vehicle was Prokofiev’s popular and electrifying Third Piano Concerto. The composer was, himself, 30 when he completed what became the hit of all his five keyboard concertos. So the choice seemed to make perfect sense.


An impressive pianist, Prokofiev wrote his first two keyboard concertos to show off. With his third, he found a new and powerful balance between fingers and soul. On Tuesday night there was what appeared to be an amiable division of labor. The Chinese pianist provided the fingers, the Venezuelan conductor the soul.

As he approaches 30, Lang Lang appears to be cutting back on the flash. He was dressed, here, modestly in the traditional Bowl white jacket, if with slightly rakish open white shirt. He mugged less during the concerto than he sometimes does. And when he did wax overly lyrical he compensated with his magical tone.

He played with the spectacular rhythmic ferocity and finesse for which he is famed. He had, in Dudamel, a conductor who was flexible and supportive but also able, perhaps, to prevent the more egregious lapses in taste, such as heavy-handed accenting, for which Lang Lang has also been known.

The collaboration almost worked. But Lang Lang has become predictable. When he last appeared in Los Angeles in 2009, playing a Chopin concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, a young superstar seemed at a crossroads. Would he deepen musically or was he destined to become a concert hall clown, as the late pianist Earl Wild had predicted? Lang Lang has made little progress and seems now frozen somewhere in the middle, his artistic development temporally stunted. White-knuckle passages in the first and final movements were, to him, nothing, tossed off with dazzling confidence.

The middle movement, a set of variations, was where he could show his ability to play with texture, creating delicate filigrees of decoration and, in the slow fourth variation, commune with the stars.

The concerto ended in the wow of percussive dazzle. And then poof! Lang Lang returned for an encore, Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, that was so cartoony in its romanticism that it was no consolation at all.


But even in the concerto, my ear was constantly drawn away from the keyboard and to the orchestra, to the mellow clarinets, the many-colored string and brass sections, the richness and character that Dudamel enticed from the L.A. Philharmonic. And that richness and character was then many times multiplied after intermission, when Dudamel turned to Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures.” Dudamel conducted it from memory as he did for an agreeable opener of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from “Prince Igor.”

The orchestra brought a degree of intensity that seldom seems feasible at the Bowl. The amplification was bold, exposing instrumental details and making a visceral impact. But great performances deserve great equipment. It’s time for a major upgrade in the sound system, although heaven only knows where the millions of dollars to do it right would come from. The Bowl is a Los Angeles County facility, after all.

The “Pictures” provided extraordinary tableaux vivant in sounds. It has sometimes been suggested that the large video screens would be perfect for projecting the actual paintings by Viktor Hartmann that had inspired Mussorgsky. Not this time. Dudamel played on the imagination by bringing gnome, old castle, catacombs and all the other scenes to life through the ear, not the eye.

That also meant that the one thing the Bowl does not need more of is fancy lighting. As Dudamel reached “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the exultant finale of “Pictures,” the stage suddenly darkened. The shell grew bright again as the music climaxed.

Light matters and attention can be delicate in the distracting outdoors. Dudamel had reached a moment of exultation, the climax of a great performance. An audience, I sensed, was being swept away. A spell was then broken, and a great ending became cheapened.

Still, nothing can take away from the accomplishment of this “Pictures.” To begin a Bowl season on such an exalted level sets the bar exactly where it belongs –- impossibly high. Now someone needs to put the shell’s lighting switch up very high as well -- so the children can’t reach it.



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-- Mark Swed

Gustavo Dudamel and Lang Lang with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursday. $1 to $130. (323) 850-2000 or