Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Benzecry and Berlioz
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It’s not as though there wasn’t much in the way of fanfares for Gustavo Dudamel’s first two seasons as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be more. And so there was Friday night, when he conducted the first regular season program of the new season (opening night was a Gershwin gala on Tuesday).
Both of the works on Friday night’s first half were by living composers and both were fanfare-based. The evening began with John Adams’ 1985 “Tromba Lontana.” Its point of interest is not the two antiphonal trumpets, which Dudamel placed on opposite sides of the organ loft above the orchestra, but on the softly purring orchestra, which creates a wonderfully cushioning effect.
Esteban Benzecry’s “Rituales Amerindios” (Amerindian Rituals) sets off with a fanfare as well, although used in a radically different ceremonial context. Dudamel commissioned the score for his Swedish orchestra, the Gothenburg Symphony, which gave the first performance last year. The L.A. Philharmonic performance was the U.S. premiere of a half-hour work the composer labels a “Pre-Columbian Triptych for Orchestra.”
Usually referred to as an Argentine composer, Benzecry was born in Portugal in 1970 and calls himself Argentine-French, the nationalities of his parents and the two modern musical cultures most easily discernible in his music. In 2010, Dudamel introduced Benzecry to Los Angeles at a Green Umbrella concert with the premiere of a feisty chamber work, “Fantasia Mastay,” which melded Inca incantations with French Modernism.
The “Rituales” evokes, in its three parts, the Aztec wind god Ehécatl, the Mayan water god Chaac and the Incan thunder god Illapa. Benzecry uses the big orchestra as a gaudy color machine. Ehécatl’s fanfares, which for some reason also conjure Chaac and Illapa, are, like Adams, not the main point of interest. Instead, lurid and luminous orchestral effects elsewhere are the stunners.
The calm, transfixing middle section of the first movement, for instance, has an electronic haze. The instrumental textures are complex and fizzy. But they are acoustically made and all the more remarkable for that analog fact.
The raindrops falling on the Mayans’ heads come from exquisitely swooning percussion, and the delicately exotic wood-wind decorations. Benzecry shows his South American roots most directly in the last movement’s driving rhythms, reminiscent of Revueltas but also Ravel.
This is just the kind of music Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic take to, and that Disney’s acoustics are designed to make vibrant. A percussionist, however, missed his final beat, coming in a fraction of second late. Accidents happen, and they can be an inspiration. Here a predictably exhilarating dash to the finish gained, by chance, a surprise. I’d encourage Benzecry to allow his thunder god’s rain dance a bit of climate-change unpredictability in the future as well, and make a marvelous mistake permanent. Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” finished the program. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted it at the Bowl in August with rare grace. Dudamel himself led the orchestra in the flamboyant French symphony in 2008, the season before he became music director, and that performance was so noteworthy it was released for sale as a download on iTunes and the Deutsche Gramophone website.
At the time, I wrote that Dudamel “underscored absolutely everything he could possibly underscore.” For Friday’s “Symphonie Fantastique” on steroids, he underscored more. He found ways to make every bizarre Berlioz instrumental effect stand out with previously unimagined immoderation. He’s even doubled the harps from two to four. From what bell tower did he nab those giant bells for the witches’ Sabbath of the last movement?
We have some idea, from period-instrument performances, what this proto-psychedelic symphony was meant to sound like, and that nasal, salty sound is nothing like the enormously rounded, exceptionally vivid sonorities Dudamel can now get from his orchestra. Then again, what stopped the French in their tracks 180 years ago has long since ceased seeming radical to us. Dudamel stopped me in my tracks.
If you are easily offended by sonic excess, this is no “Symphonie Fantastique” for you. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a thrill, jump in. Dudamel’s Berlioz, which is like no one else’s, drove a large crowd at Disney into a willing frenzy.
-- Mark Swed
Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $65 to $175. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.