Music review: Gustavo Dudamel and Janine Jansen play Mendelssohn

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Gustavo Dudamel’s all-Mendelssohn program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night seemed to have a single goal in mind: to lift spirits. “The Hebrides” Overture, the Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony are chestnuts all, youthfully ebullient and largely lyrical in tone. Melodies beguile. Life -- in the approach of Dudamel and his transfixing soloist, Dutch violinist Janine Jansen -- was affirmed.

Along with its usual round of weekend repetitions, the Sunday matinee will be broadcast to theaters nationwide as part of the orchestra’s LA Phil Live series. That’s a fine way to wind up the second week of the L.A. Phil’s new season, Dudamel’s third. But so eventful have these two weeks been that illuminating cloudless Mendelssohn verges on the anticlimactic.

This was the orchestra’s fourth program in 10 days (and Dudamel’s third). Two major, challenging works — Esteban Benzecry’s “Rituales Amerindios” and Georg Friedrich Haas’ extraordinary “chants oubliés” (an L.A. Phil commission) — had their U.S. premieres. A Gershwin gala, with Herbie Hancock as soloist, was filmed for television. Dudamel’s treatment of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was extravagant enough to test Disney’s earthquake resistance.

Then there was the news. On Tuesday, the L.A. Phil announced an historic, Dudamel-inspired music education initiative with two East Coast institutions, Bard College and the Longy School. On Thursday, Gramophone magazine named Dudamel musician of the year.


While already more than enough for other orchestras to be eating their hearts out, this is just the small stuff in an unprecedentedly ambitious season (which includes a Mahler cycle, three staged operas, numerous commissions and premieres) that’s barely underway. A Mendelssohn night, however pleasurable, may soon be forgotten.

But Dudamel did manage to keep listeners — and his players — on their toes. Last week he sat the violins together and, with strings as thick as clotted cream, emphasized sonic opulence. Winds played effusively, the brass brazenly, a percussion section raised the roof. Dudamel used a large orchestra to goad even Gershwin into instrumental excess. Tempos were sometimes spacious. Restraints on sonic size and weight were lifted. But for Mendelssohn Dudamel divided the violins (in the configuration Esa-Pekka Salonen favored), resulting in airier textures, and he kept the orchestra relatively small. He made sure lyrical melodies were lovingly expansive, but tempos were often fleet. The Scherzo of the “Scottish,” as the Third Symphony is known, sizzled. This was danceable Mendelssohn.

Three years ago Jansen made her Disney Hall debut in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto that was modern yet remarkably stirring. Old-school Russian sentiment and Amsterdam modern appeared perfectly in sync. Her command of the instrument was spectacular. Her return was been eagerly awaited.

Jansen’s Mendelssohn was different. She glided through this war horse with a fervent intensity and cool efficiency that might have been at odds but weren’t. What was peculiar, though, was the gliding part. She hardly seemed to touch musical ground. She played the concerto as chamber music. Her tone, which is not large but is sumptuous, blended into the orchestra so fully as to sometimes get lost.

Indeed, she was all but a member of the ensemble, standing so close to the orchestra that she would not have needed to take a step had she wanted to sit on a cellist’s lap. The concerto went by very quickly in a suave surge. Mostly keeping her power in captivating reserve, Jansen did, though, unleash torrents in the cadenza and bring a sudden presence to climactic passages.

Although he accommodated Jansen with seeming ease, Dudamel otherwise sweated Mendelssohn’s details. In the “Hebrides” and especially in the “Scottish” — both works were inspired by a journey to Scotland by the 20-year-old Mendelssohn — he went after an aged single-malt headiness and paid special attention to shaping melodies.

Mendelssohn’s storms were blustery, but it was the delicacy in the pianissimos and an impulsive, cheerful Scottish snap that most fruitfully set Dudamel off. If the L.A. Phil could package the optimism of the final bars of Dudamel’s “Scottish,” it might change the mood of the country. A test Sunday will be whether Mendelssohn in the cineplex proves more persuasive than popcorn.


Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Benzecry and Berlioz

Music review: Georg Friedrich Haas’ Green Umbrella premiere

L.A. Phil, Bard, Longy launch El Sistema-based music initiative

Believe the hype -- Janine Jansen soars

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel and Janine Jansen, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $75 to $185. (323) 850-2000 or or fathomevents for LA Phil LIVE.