The houselights stayed dim at the start of Monday night’s concert at Davies Symphony Hall for longer than usual, as if to milk the moment for all it was worth. Only a few extra seconds elapsed before Gustavo Dudamel strode on stage to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But the sense of anticipation in the concert hall seemed to make those ticking seconds feel like an eternity.
Just as he has bewitched Los Angeles audiences since becoming music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last fall, so the charismatic 28-year-old conductor has quickly brought Bay Area audiences under his spell. A pair of sold-out concerts in San Francisco on Monday and Tuesday evenings marked the launch of Dudamel’s inaugural tour as music director of the Philharmonic — the orchestra’s first national tour in almost a decade. If audience reactions to Monday’s performance are anything to go by, the Philharmonic will be returning home later this month after completing its all-but-sold-out 10-concert journey with eight cities full of Dudamel devotees in its wake.
Next on the tour: Phoenix on Wednesday night, followed by Chicago, Nashville, Washington, Philadelphia, Newark and New York’s Lincoln Center.
Following Monday’s performance, the habitually staid San Francisco classical music audience behaved as if the Giants had just scored a home run. Almost every concertgoer in the packed, 2,700-seat auditorium rose to his or her feet following the orchestra’s take on “City Noir” by John Adams and Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, works that the Philharmonic performed at Dudamel’s inaugural gala in October. Davies Symphony Hall rarely experiences this level of excitement. Only Yo-Yo Ma’s weeklong series of concerts in San Francisco earlier this year rivaled the Philharmonic’s in terms of ticket sales and enthusiasm. “There’s always excitement around a Gustavo concert,” said Donato Cabrera, the San Francisco Symphony’s assistant conductor. “He has the ability to draw people’s undivided attention.”
The audience didn’t wait for the end of the concert to show its appreciation for the visiting group and its conductor, who has appeared on the same podium two times previously — with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in 2007 and the San Francisco Symphony in 2008. Dudamel first arrived on stage Monday amid rapturous applause and yells of “Gustavo!” During the slow sections of the second movement of the symphony, some audience members nodded their heads and even swayed slightly as if hearing a lullaby. As is his habit, the conductor led Mahler’s work without the aid of the score.
The Adams piece, a kinetic ode to the city of Los Angeles featuring stampeding percussion and careening solos for the trumpet and alto saxophone written especially for Dudamel’s inaugural concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall last fall, had some people sitting at the edge of their seats. This included concertgoers David Lomeli and Leah Crocetto, respectively a tenor and soprano with the San Francisco’s Opera’s Adler Fellowship program, one of the country’s top opera training institutions. The rising opera stars both performed under Dudamel’s baton in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass with the L.A. Philharmonic in November.
“Gustavo can transform every piece of music into a full energetic experience,” Lomeli said. “You can feel the energy building to a massive climax throughout John Adams’ work.”
“I was waiting for him to do a back-flip,” Crocetto added.
A few isolated audience members weren’t quite as willing to buy into Dudamania, however. Public radio host Alan Farley has witnessed the conductor’s work on Dudamel’s previous trips to San Francisco. Farley enjoyed “City Noir” but had reservations about Dudamel’s ability to helm a convincing interpretation of Mahler’s First. “I wasn’t so impressed with the Mahler,” Farley said. “Part of the problem is that the standard for Mahler here is so high.”
Indeed, with the late-Romantic Austrian composer being a major focus of interest for San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, local audiences have been exposed to many high-quality performances of the composer’s work in recent years. The San Francisco Chronicle’s classical music critic, Joshua Kosman, was equally skeptical of Dudamel’s approach to Mahler. “When I heard this program in Los Angeles, it seemed to me that Dudamel had a weird take on Mahler’s First Symphony,” Kosman said in a phone interview before the concert. He planned to wait to write his review following Tuesday night’s concert, with Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique” on the second program. “I am curious as to whether he was playing the piece as he thinks it should be played or whether it was him and his people trying to work out how to play together. We’ll see what happens tonight.”
When Dudamel hammered home the final chords of the Mahler, causing deafening applause to fill the concert hall and bringing many people to their feet, Kosman clapped quietly and remained in his seat. He shrugged emphatically. And then he was gone.