IN his U.S. debut Tuesday night, a 24-year-old conductor from Venezuela with curly hair, long sideburns and a baby face accomplished something increasingly rare and difficult at the Hollywood Bowl. He got a normally restive audience’s full, immediate and rapt attention. And he kept it.
With the opening bars of Silvestre Revueltas’ “La Noche de los Mayas,” the party sitting next to me put aside its just-opened giant bag of Cheetos and forgot about it until intermission. Once into this arresting depiction of a night of the Maya’s revelry and enchantment, once the percussion department’s battery of drums got to beating and a conch shell called the Maya to carousing, the crowd clapped and whooped.
That’s not just rare but a downright wonder at the Bowl on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s classical Tuesday and Thursday programs.
Gustavo Dudamel is being touted as the next Simon Rattle. The comparison is not inapt. Rattle is one of this young conductor’s mentors and champions, and Dudamel’s style on the podium, which is strongly physical (the air seems to have substance as he moves his hands through it) and irresistibly enthusiastic, is altogether Rattle-ian.
Another avid Dudamel champion worth noting is Ernest Fleischmann, the former Philharmonic general manager who was a member of the jury that awarded Dudamel the top prize in the Bamberg Symphony Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition last year. Fleischmann, a legend among talent scouts, was among the first to recognize the potential of Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Already, the music business has taken notice of Dudamel. The Bowl was said to be dotted with American orchestra administrators checking him out. The prestigious record label Deutsche Grammophon has just signed him.
All of this meant that he had a lot to live up to, and for the most part he did. Earlier in the season, the Philharmonic management removed a recent piece by a composer from Puerto Rico because it feared the program would be too long (although similar fears vanished the next week at an overextended Mozart concert).
Tuesday night, Dudamel led a well-deserved Latin music revenge. He didn’t bother with a dutiful warmup. He simply launched into “La Noche,” a savage 1939 masterpiece by one of Mexico’s greatest composers.
I can’t remember when everything was last this focused from the start at a Bowl concert. The sound system was already at the point it usually takes half a concert or more to reach. The strings dug in with their first attacks, and they stayed dug in all evening. The percussion let rip. The winds and brass bared their souls.
But the results weren’t unruly. Dudamel never once gave the impression of being anything but in tight control over every detail and every grand sweep. In fact, his growth will, I suspect, include a gradual loosening of that control. Most of his experience thus far has come from conducting Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra, which most likely needs a firm hand.
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony made up the second half of Tuesday’s program. This was a pleasingly phrased, well-balanced, compelling performance. But Dudamel is surely just beginning to find his way into such major repertory. He allowed the big tunes to be big in all their glory. He stirred things up when they need to be stirred up.
If he remained, in the end, a tad cautious, he had the pressure of important eyes and ears trained on this debut. Worse, he was all but thrown to the lions: Rehearsal time at the Bowl is severely limited. Ham-fisted camerawork managed to make even a dozen percussionists in the Revueltas look boring. An ominously rumbling police helicopter chased its tail over the nearby hills throughout the opening of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. Two movements later, a car alarm attempted to throw off the composer’s waltz rhythms.
But Dudamel overcame all the Bowl’s indignities. I hope the Philharmonic kept the visiting orchestra officials out of his dressing room long enough to get first dibs on his next American engagement.
And the one after that. And after that.