Review: Gustavo Dudamel and Yuja Wang lead an exceptional, propulsive Rachmaninoff festival
Two days after the announcement that in a full 43 months, or approximately 1,300 days, Gustavo Dudamel will become music director of the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director faced his public in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Yes, he’s still here and will be for another three full seasons after this one. On Thursday night, he began a long-planned, two-week Rachmaninoff festival, business as usual.
Even so, a uniquely beloved conductor who is in his 14th season with the L.A. Phil — and who has reached out more widely and accomplished more than any other cultural figure in the city today — has engendered complicated reactions to what he has said was a very complicated decision. How would Dudamel, then, be greeted Thursday and in the concerts through the weekend?
He elicited a range of emotions, from feelings of betrayal to ever more love and gratitude. And, of course, he can count on our civic pride in Los Angeles once again being a city that New York turns to for guidance, inspiration and excellence in the arts.
Gustavo Dudamel is set to leave the L.A. Phil at the end of his contract in 2026, when he will then take top post at the New York Philharmonic.
There was no question of electricity in the air Thursday night. As I was driving into the garage at Disney, a speeding car cut me off. I thought little of it, until a second car raced past, then a third. I dodged a fourth as I was walking to the escalator. No matter that 25 minutes to curtain remained.
Disney Hall was packed, and the audience diverse. Many languages could be heard. A film crew had set up shop, with large video cameras onstage and around the hall. When Dudamel walked on, the crowd erupted with cheers and whistles, like for a pop star.
But the conductor happened to be walking between Yuja Wang and the orchestra. The cheers were for him, but seemingly more so from the pianist’s enthusiastic fans.
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The festival marks the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth on April 1, along with the 80th anniversary next month of his death in Beverly Hills, and it is based on Wang playing the Russian composer’s four piano concertos and his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Each is on a different night. The video cameras were for Deutsche Grammophon’s new streaming site, Stage+; the German record label will also release a live audio recording.
Wang recently made news by playing the four concertos and rhapsody in a marathon at New York’s Carnegie Hall, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is also music director of the Metropolitan Opera. That makes him a future Lincoln Center neighbor when Dudamel begins with the New York Philharmonic in fall 2026.
But New York can wait, and it can wait some more. This was Rachmaninoff heard like it’s not been heard anywhere else. DG had reason to record it and not the marathon (Nézet-Séquin and the Philadelphians are also DG artists), which was said to have been inspirational but also clearly required a lot of pacing for the pianist and patience for the audience.
The concerts over the weekend included, mercifully one at a time, Concerto No. 1 on Thursday, the rhapsody on Friday and the super popular Concerto No. 2 on Saturday and Sunday. Each program ended with Dudamel conducting Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his best known — and best — orchestral work.
Wang played with exceptional power, depth and dazzle. As accompanist, Dudamel went in for illumination. The pianist and conductor have had a long musical relationship, and it showed. What seemed the most impressive was the focus. Once each performance started, all else seemed to fall away. Wang loves to show off her effortless virtuosity, as mind-boggling as ever. She can be cavalier at times. She can be flashy. Rachmaninoff asks for both. But she can count on being — and was to an exceptional degree — musically apt.
When Rachmaninoff, one of the world’s greatest pianists, played the famed opening chords of his Second Concerto on his two bestselling recordings from the 1920s of the concerto with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, he was reserved. Under the composer’s fingers, the opening chord progression grows with a natural and elegant suppleness. Wang attacked them, making each one an ever-more-important event.
She seemed to be saying, listen, this matters. The concerto may have its reputation for schlock, but just listen. The concerto, written at the turn of the 20th century, may have spawned the crooner hit “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” along with countless sentimental uses in pop music and films over the last 120 years, but this is 2023. Wang, along with Dudamel, who was propulsive and extravagantly detailed in the accompaniments, went instead for the dynamism of our times. (Rachmaninoff loved, as does Dudamel, fast cars. But try to careen around the Disney garage in a 1940 jalopy and see how far that gets you.)
The First Concerto, very early Rachmaninoff, needed all the help it could use, and got it. The rhapsody, a set of 24 imaginative and color-infused variations, started by treating Paganini to 1930s neo-Classisism, with the variations careening in their own right to the medieval “Dies Irae” and, in the 18th variation, over-the-top Romanticism. Wang’s attacks were pinpoint until that 18th variation, which she milked, yet without exaggerating. The L.A. Phil matched the speed of her reflexes as though each quick phrase were — to change the metaphor — a fastball thrown at them to hit.
In the Symphonic Dances, Dudamel was expansive while also exalting in the orchestral colors, especially Rachmaninoff’s use of the saxophone. It’s a moody score, and it got a moody performance — dark and glowing but not wanting. It mirrors what Rachmaninoff seemed to be suggesting in this, his last major work, written two years before his death: saying goodbye. The applause was as rapt and warm as the playing. There’s no need for goodbyes yet.
'Los Angeles Philharmonic Plays Rachmaninoff'
What: Pianist Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel conclude its Rachmaninoff festival with the last two piano concertos and “The Bells”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday (Piano Concerto No. 3); 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (Piano Concerto No. 4)
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
Tickets: Sold out, but check for returns
Info: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com
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