Last week at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel conducted the first performance of a major new work by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Next week, he will premiere three Los Angeles Philharmonic commissions, this time by three generations of American composers.
In between, Thursday night in Disney, he attempted a reinvention of Manuel de Falla's ballet "El Amor Brujo," with a company of ravishing flamenco dancers.
Oh, yes, Friday morning brought the announcement that Dudamel will lead a new production of "West Side Story" starring Cecilia Bartoli at the Salzburg Whitsun festival.
Given Dudamel's elevated level of exploration and risk taking, not everything can be expected to succeed in every way. "El Amor Brujo," which is sometimes translated as "Love, the Magician," is something of a mess. But as an experiment, it was a fresh mess, with brilliant dancing by the Siudy Garrido Flamenco Dance Company, terrific conducting and not uninteresting ideas that may well supply seeds for future.
The ballet came as the second half of a Spanish program beginning with De Falla's Second Suite from "The Three-Cornered Hat" and Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," for which guitarist Angel Romero was soloist.
Dance in Disney, with an orchestra on stage, is a challenge. With the dancers taking over both the lip of the stage and a rear platform behind the L.A. Phil, the orchestra could not be on its usual risers, which flattened the acoustics.
But dance happens to be part of Dudamel's DNA. He married a dancer and although Eloisa Maturén, now an actress, has recently filed for divorce, she was in the audience Thursday night enthusiastically cheering Dudamel on. Garrido, moreover, is a Venezuelan dancer and choreographer, long part of the Dudamel and Maturén circle.
"El Amor Brujo" was for De Falla a problem child. His original attempt in 1915 was an experimental flamenco music-theater piece. A decade later, the piece had morphed into a more traditional ballet score for large orchestra, retaining three songs for a female soloist. That caught on almost immediately as a concert piece (the L.A. Phil played it as early as 1930), less so as a ballet.
The plot is peculiar. A young girl, who loves another, is forced into a marriage. Ironically she becomes obsessed with her husband even though he turns out to be a philanderer. Instead of feeling liberated when he dies, she remains in erotic thrall to his ghost. Her release is to trick him with another woman.
Despite a magical score that contains a couple of numbers familiar on pops programs, "El Amor Brujo" is too dramatically sketchy for substantial ballet. Garrido's solution has been to layer on more plot and music.
Thursday she began with a funeral procession in front of the orchestra and moved on to an elevated rear platform. On one end of the platform was a bed; on the other, a table and places for a flamenco guitarist (José Luis Rodriguez), singer (Ismael de la Rosa) and percussionist (Adolfo Herrera), who added original music.
The new introduction included Garrido's solo dance as a widow in black in ecstatic mourning. It was mesmerizing, but the new music set a tone distinct from De Falla, and the applause for Garrido's solo drowned out the ballet score's own Introduction. From then on, there was a battle between De Falla and flamenco, acoustically and stylistically, rather than a revival of the flamenco that inspired the Spanish composer in the first place.
Male dancers, impressively showy as peacocks, delighted in the percussive resonance created by stomping on the platform, again in acoustic conflict with the orchestra. Much of the stage business — Garrido adds new spiritual elements, ghosts who come to life and a shaman — probably would have been hard enough to fathom were most of the audience able to see it, but the lighting was dim.
The acoustics remained troubling. Harsh amplification made the flamenco singer known as Argentina, who sang De Falla's three songs, grating. Still, Garrido is a brilliant soloist with a vibrant company that included Antonio Canales as the ghost with a life-size libido, Farruquito as the widow's lover and Natalia Novelo as the alluring other woman.
When well heard, the L.A. Phil sounded wonderful. In this and the "Three-Cornered Hat" Suite at the beginning, Dudamel led lovingly sensual, electrifying performances. But the "Hat" dance music would have popped out more with risers.
Rodrigo's beloved concerto got a classic account. While every guitarist plays it, and many with a more voluptuous tone than Romero now brings to it, he is an authority. He worked with Rodrigo. He was also a 16-year-old soloist in 1964, the first time the L.A. Phil played it. He has performed it countless times since.
Romero removed dreaminess in the slow movement and revealed little showiness in its cadenza. The outer movements were crisp, never willful.
Whereas Garrido's way with "El Amor Brujo" was to add layers, as if coating De Falla with flamenco, Romero's was the opposite. He removed the romantic excesses that the concerto has acquired over the years from dreamier guitarists, and presented Rodrigo without varnish.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown Los Angeles
When: 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday