Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts ‘Zarathustra’ at Disney Hall


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Nine months before becoming music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel conducted a program clearly meant to impress. He began his December 2008 appearance with an otherworldly score by a distinctively elusive contemporary Hungarian composer as a prelude to a mature Mozart piano concerto and Richard Strauss’ decidedly over-the-top, roof-raising nearly hourlong “Alpine Symphony,” which Dudamel conducted from memory.


On Saturday night at Disney Concert Hall, Dudamel ended a very busy and varied first month of his third season here with precisely the same kind of program, although with different pieces and soloist. Instead of György Kurtág’s “Stele,” Dudamel led Kurtág’s “Grabstein für Stephan.” Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with Richard Goode as soloist replaced Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with Rudolf Buchbinder. The roof-raising “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was the Strauss tone poem this time around.

But what had been merely impressive three years ago was now questing. Kurtág’s score is one of his most peculiar and disturbing. Goode’s Mozart was wondrously living and breathing, whereas Buchbinder’s had been precious. And “Zarathustra” is, well, “Zarathustra,” its organ and brass opening still referred to as the theme of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Any showy composer can mount a mountain in music, but to make Nietzschean philosophy visceral -– lush, approachable, danceable and a window into the future -- is something.

More than that, though, this program had a powerful sense of grappling with big issues of life and death, of the here and now, and Dudamel’s performances, while not always restrained (a restrained “Zarathustra” would be an outrage) were penetrating in a way that I don’t think he could have been three years ago.

“Grabstein für Stephan” (Gravesite for Stephan) memorializes the husband of the psychologist Marianne Stein, who treated Kurtág in Paris for depression after the 1956 Hungarian revolt. Separated on stage were four small groups of strings, winds, tuned percussion and plucked or poked instruments (such as pianino, guitar and celesta). The brass were high above in the organ loft. Scattered in Disney’s terraces and balcony were players blowing whistles and what sounded like an eerie exclamation from beyond the grave made by a plastic soccer horn.

Strange sounds in this 1989 score pierce uneasy silences. The effect is like having an ear infection that causes one to hear noises unasked for in one’s head and to lose one’s balance. The performance was sensitive, precise and deeply unsettling. Halloween weekend may, for the party set, be a time when death is mocked. Not at Disney Hall.

Mozart’s dark and dramatic 20th Piano Concerto was not overly stormy, not with Goode as such a lyrically satisfying Mozartean pianist. Dudamel, here, appeared to defer to a master who crafted each phrase into something that was less a statement and more a suggestion.


There was logic in Goode’s playing, and he produced an exquisitely rounded tone. One note always connected to the next; one thought always connected to the next. Yet I was not tempted to listen to this performance as a musical argument or a drama.

Goode’s piano blended with strings, winds and brass like an uncanny musical chameleon. And that is where the notion of suggestion comes in -- the Zen-like way he let Mozart be. This was a thinking-man’s Mozart that could, contradictorily, be best experienced with unthinking awareness. Dudamel created, for Goode, an accompanimental Zen rock garden, an environment in which a great pianist might place himself.

This program was Dudamel’s first time with “Zarathustra.” He conducted from memory. He let Disney do the work for the “Sunrise” (the “2001” bit), with the low organ chord drone felt through the floor of the hall and brass grand as can be. Dudamel felt confident to push climaxes to the extreme and to vehemently toss the big central fugue about, as though he was wringing its neck. The strings dripped with Viennese cream. The waltz near the end of the score was first seductive, then lost its mind in an outpouring of decadent pleasure.

Still, the quiet is what was most exceptional about this “Zarathustra.” Strauss begins in awe but he ends neurotically in hushed harmonic uncertainty. All but stopping time, Dudamel brought the evening to a revelatory full circle. Might Strauss have been the one to open the unearthly door through which Kurtág could enter a century later?

[For the record, 8:20 p.m.: This post previously said ‘Grabstein für Stephan’ memorializes Marianne Stein’s wife. It memorializes her husband.]



Dudamel climbs the mountain

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-- Mark Swed