Music Critic

Oct. 8, 2009, is not the date of a revolution in music. The day marks not even the dawn of a new era. What the Gustavo Dudamel gala Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall did mean for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, however, was an embrace of a new generation and cultural point of view, which is no small thing.

Dudamel’s first concert in the hall as the orchestra’s new music director was, of course, hoopla heaven. Movie stars materialized out of wherever it is they materialize. Grand Avenue became a South American party parish for the night. During the concert, the Disney stage was beset by video cameras, documenting the occasion for broadcast in the U.S. on PBS, and also across Europe, South America and Africa. Glittering confetti, a Disney opening night tradition, made the final ovations literally sparkle.

But for all the publicity about the new 28-year-old Venezuelan music director and the freshness he brings to a supposedly staid classical music, the most extraordinary aspect of the program itself was just how much it represented business as usual for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After 17 years under the directorship of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra had earned the trust of its audience.


No musical lollipops were on offer Thursday. No Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming or other A-list soloist was employed to glamorize the stage. To begin the program, Dudamel walked up to the podium, acknowledged the tremendous applause with a happy smile and then fearlessly launched into the world premiere of John Adams’ 35-minute “City Noir.”

Not only is this perhaps Adams’ most demanding symphonic work both for audience and orchestra, it was also Dudamel’s first time conducting anything by the composer. The players, however, know Adams well, and Dudamel had appointed him as the orchestra’s creative chair. In a multicultural community where the Venezuelan Cafe Bolivar and Santa Monica’s John Adams Middle School are a block apart, this feels like a fated relationship.

Adams describes “City Noir” in his program note as a work inspired by the mysteriously dark Los Angeles of the late ‘40s and ‘50s -- Raymond Chandler’s town -- and by the film noir of that period. The three-movement symphony begins, as Jack Webb might have said on the LAPD radio series “Dragnet,” with a big stew.

The first movement, titled “The City and Its Double,” is a swirling panoply of scurrying strings and winds, ominous brass chords, syncopated jazz drumming, along with, typically in Adams, syncopated everything. Melodies appear as inexplicably as a dirty blond in Philip Marlowe’s office. I sense something of Schoenberg’s L.A., as well. The title is taken from the French writer Antonin Artaud, a profound influence in the ‘50s on French composer and Adams nemesis Pierre Boulez. Go figure.

The second movement, “The Song Is for You,” is softer and, on the surface, sweeter than the first, and jazzy. I heard hints of Gershwin in the horns after a flamboyant saxophone solo (played by Timothy McAllister). But a big, seductive and, yes, also dark trombone solo (a great turn for James Miller) gets under one’s skin.

The third movement, “Boulevard Night,” begins with gorgeous chords in the strings and winds, given tinkling accompaniment by two harps, piano and celesta (there are no electronics). This is a CinemaScope sunrise, which is followed by a dazzling trumpet solo (nailed by Donald Green). Stravinsky pops up here as well in a knockout finale.

Dudamel led everything with confidence and urgency. I can’t imagine another orchestra that could sell such a piece so effectively on the first performance. But for Dudamel, who was born in 1981, this score evokes a time as distant as Brahms’ is for some of our most senior conductors. I look forward to his growing into the work (he will repeat it in November with the orchestra) and to other conductors who might give it a little more breathing space.

The other work on the program, Mahler’s First Symphony, is a young man’s symphony. The composer began it at 24. Dudamel has conducted it often. He has found his way inside every note, and takes a listener with him. Sometimes he goes too far, which is a young man’s art as well.

At this point in his development, Dudamel’s conducting is essentially gestural. He can shape a musical phrase and put energy into it so it seems to have a life of its own. He began Mahler’s symphony in a hush of irresistible shimmer. The piping up of a clarinet or flute felt as though all nature were about to wake up. The second movement had the weight of a herd of elephants dancing in perfect step. The symphony ended in a blaze of glory. There was no more need to argue with exaggerated details than to argue with delicious cake. This is temptation best indulged.

The pressure was great for the orchestra, and that may explain why the performance felt nervous. Maybe an early horn mishap slightly jinxed the brass. Or maybe Dudamel was simply asking for too much too often.

My guess is that the symphony will settle down magnificently as the Mahler is repeated throughout the weekend on a program with a new work by Korean composer Unsuk Chin, replacing the Adams.