Critic’s Notebook: A season with gusto


On Oct. 3, 2009, the Los Angeles Philharmonic welcomed Gustavo Dudamel with a free, daylong concert at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a zoo. The event, which climaxed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was broadcast live on radio and streamed over the Internet and received international press coverage.

Five days later, Dudamel conducted his first concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall as the orchestra’s music director in a special gala program that included the world premiere of John Adams’ “City Noir,” written for the occasion, and Mahler’s First Symphony. It was a zoo. The gala was televised worldwide, released on DVD and received international press coverage.

Last Saturday in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall — 7 1/2 months, 39 concerts of nine programs later — Dudamel conducted that same opening-gala program of Adams and Mahler to conclude his first U.S. tour and first season as music director of the Philharmonic. Hype was the word most typed in headlines and opening paragraphs of tour reviews.

Did we really think that Los Angeles would be such a great place for a young Venezuelan conductor, not yet 30, to be allowed to develop outside the limelight?

Judged by the standards of a mere mortal music director, Dudamel had a remarkable first season. He delivered many exciting performances and a couple of great ones. He took chances and cheerfully flew, more than once, by the seat of his pants. He has a lot yet to learn. He may be experiencing growing pains (and ones that will continue for a while). Nothing remotely conclusive can be said about him at this point.

Still, this is the moment to look back. Not that Dudamel, himself, will have a moment to ponder the past. He is already in Sweden catching up with the second of his three orchestral spouses, the Gothenburg Symphony. My guess is that, as he celebrates Sweden’s National Day with a free concert on the green or promotes his initiative for a “Swedish El Sistema,” L.A. will be far from his mind. Moreover, his first orchestra love, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, joins him shortly for a Scandinavian and Russian tour.

This ability to live in the moment is one of Dudamel’s great gifts, especially in an art form where so much of the repertoire is made up of classical works familiar to the audience. Dudamel is always on. He phones in nothing. He conducts in a state of awe and gusto. He takes risks. He values sound — rich, expressive, magical sound — over structure, and he loves to push the envelope. His energy supply would be the envy of nations.

But these aren’t qualities that everyone in this field admires, as might be gathered from some of the reviews of the U.S. tour. While most of the musicians in the orchestra adore him, a few complain that Dudamel belabors points. They miss Esa-Pekka Salonen’s focus and sense of organization.

Because he already had bookings in 2009 and early 2010 when he was hired by the Philharmonic, Dudamel’s season was oddly proportioned with a slate of concerts in the fall and then, after a four-month absence, another slated in the spring. He has a house in the Hollywood Hills, but we don’t yet think of him as a resident, rather more like a relative who drops in for extended stays. And when he is here, he is pulled in dozens of different directions. With so many people wanting a piece of him and Dudamel having so many of his own projects (including recently conducting the Youth Orchestra LA in Disney), he can seem, at times, to approach his job like a hit-and-run driver.

Yet Dudamel’s accomplishments speak for themselves. There was a good helping of standard repertory — Beethoven’s Ninth, Schubert’s “Unfinished,” Mozart’s “Jupiter,” Verdi’s Requiem, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” — all of it conducted from memory. He led world premieres of “City Noir,” Unsuk Chin’s “Su,” Derek Bermel’s “Canzonas Americanas” and Esteban Benzecry’s “Fantasia Mastay,” all Philharmonic commissions. A new symphony for organ and orchestra by Stephen Hartke would have been on that list had it been finished in time.

Added to this, Dudamel programmed a number of important late 20th and early 21st century scores, reviving such neglected works as Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto, Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” and Antonio Estévez’s “Cantata Criolla” (preformed in a multimedia production). He brought back Philharmonic hit commissions — Salonen’s “LA Variations” and Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs.”

Gustavo Dudamel: An article in Monday’s Calendar section about Gustavo Dudamel’s first year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic misspelled Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” as “Naruda” Songs. —

No music director in America tried so much last season. If everything wasn’t brilliant, there was also the sheer pleasure of never knowing what to expect, not only from program to program but from night to night. Dudamel was always experimenting, always learning.

As the recent U.S. tour reviews noted, a young man must grow. Hello? He’s 29. But Dudamel doubters are driven crazy by not knowing what form that growth will take. We don’t have a calculus of sound and substance or flash and musical depth.

In October, Dudamel premiered a somewhat jumbled if impressionistically impressive vision of jangly L.A. in “City Noir.” Last week in New York, Adams’ flamboyantly complex, syncopated, dense symphony had become a masterfully spontaneous caper. Dudamel pushed too hard for polish. He wanted jazz, alive and edgy under the surface, and got it.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, an editorial writer for the New York Times, left that concert before the encore. It was, he wrote, an evening for walking along Upper Broadway “for the Hudson breeze and the promise of summer.” With a friend, I took the same walk and felt the same contented breeze from the west. And promise.