There were no excuses Tuesday night.
I'm not one to automatically believe in magic when it comes to the Hollywood Bowl. So many things can break the spell — helicopters buzzing the premises, under-rehearsed and phoned-in performances of same-old-same-old standard repertory, inconsiderate picnickers competing with music making, distracting smartphones, even more distracting video screens, amplification with a musical mind of its own, an arctic chill that seems to comes out of nowhere.
But not on Tuesday, when Gustavo Dudamel made his first Bowl appearance this summer, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an all-Beethoven program that will repeat on Thursday. It was as fine a night as the Bowl can muster, a special night that only the Bowl can muster, a sublime night.
The weather was entrancing, warm enough for the men in the orchestra to play in shirt-sleeves, but not sweltering. A breeze that felt somehow mystic was a reward at evening's end. The sound system provided sonic weight where needed and delicate details where wanted. Helicopters had other business.
The video offered insight, not only in revealing Dudamel's physically communicative conducting but also showing close-ups of one of classical music's more remarkable sights — hardened professional orchestral musicians expressing infectious passion and even delight, rather than faces of stone.
And then there was the audience. More than 10,000 listeners (10,111 to be exact) sat gripped in communion.
With Beethoven's Fifth, the most famous of all symphonies, the repertory was standard, but Dudamel's commanding performance was not. On the other hand, Beethoven's Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano, which made up the first half of the program, is far less familiar than Beethoven's other concertos (one for violin, five for piano).
Though seldom paired, these middle-period Beethoven scores make excellent partners. Both are from the first decade of the 19th century, are around the same length (just over half an hour) and are in the uncomplicated key of C.
But their characters are radically different. The concerto, in C-major, can be playful. The symphony, in C-minor, takes on, as no symphony had done so before it, the weight of the world and attempts the near impossible trick of turning angst into ecstasy.
The Triple Concerto can seem an impossible act in its own right, getting three soloists to play with individuality and as one. Dudamel had the services of a supple French threesome consisting of the brothers Capucon — violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier — and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Their contribution was an uncommonly storm-free Beethovenian joie de vivre.
The cello, the one instrument of the three for which Beethoven did not write a concerto, leads all three movements, and Gautier Capucon's lyrical suavity was stellar. He and his violinist brother, whose tone is slighter and style spikier, rode the same interpretive wavelength, sprightly egging each other on.
Thibaudet, as bemused outsider, missed no tricks. He may be best known for his sparkling clarity in French music and jazzy Gershwin, but those are ideal Beethoven qualities too, especially here.
Dudamel, who recorded the concerto with the Capucons and Martha Argerich five years ago, acted as master of fast reflexes. His conducting was Ellingtonian, as in the Duke, making space for scintillating soloists and signaling orchestral riffs at the same time.
For the Fifth, Dudamel became heavy, although not heavy-handed. This symphony had been a calling card for him. It is the first work on his first professional recording, made in Caracas with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in 2006, six months after his U.S. debut leading the L.A. Phil at the Bowl.
An enormous amount has changed since then, when Dudamel conducted with a sense of amazement for every measure of Beethoven (and all else), for the thrill of the moment. His tempos in the Fifth are now slightly faster, but just slightly, while his sense of momentum is slightly toned down. The sound is no longer so massive, but then again not even an amplified L.A. Phil can compete with the more than 200 Bolívars that Dudamel typically employs with his hometown band.
The main thing that Dudamel lately achieves, though, is authentic monumentality. He holds back just a little on the hard punch of the instantly recognized opening four notes (the so-called fate knocking on the door), creating a sense of mystery and majesty. He gives the slow movement's back-and-forth between twilight and sunshine new gravity and gladness.
Dudamel encourages the double basses in the Scherzo to dig deeper than ever. But he keeps the triumph of the Finale restrained, maybe even too restrained. That's when the wind kicked up. This was not the Beethoven of easy answers.
The L.A. Phil was superb, the players treating every note as if it meant something important.
Every note did.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Hollywood Bowl
When: 8 p.m. Thursday