Review: Gustavo Dudamel’s inner Hungarian returns

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Kodaly's "Dances of Galánta" at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Kodaly’s “Dances of Galánta” at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic began 2007 with the first appearance of Gustavo Dudamel guest-conducting a regular indoor, fully rehearsed symphony concert in the U.S. after he debuted in this country at the Hollywood Bowl and then led the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. The program at Walt Disney Concert Hall began with Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta.” It was an uncanny performance.

A 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor made the orchestra the embodiment of Hungarian folk music while at the same time giving it an unmistakable Latin accent — and a new and different life. By the end of the concert, which also featured the Hungarian Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, the L.A. Phil knew whom it wanted as its next music director.

Thursday night in Disney, Dudamel opened his final program of his seventh season as the L.A. Phil music director (about midway in a contract that runs through the 2021-22 season) with “Galánta” and more Bartók. A lot of classical music history has been made in the nearly 10 years since Dudamel’s Disney debut. And a sense of history pervaded the fiery, ferociously brilliant all-Hungarian program on Thursday.

First there was the history of Hungary. The outsize radicalization of music that has originated in this small central European country, with a language impenetrable to foreigners, is astonishing. Working in most of his career in a Hungarian court, Haydn created the models for modern symphony and string quartet. Liszt gave us the concept of a musical superstar. Bartók universalized folk music. Ligeti made the 20th century avant-garde accessible to pop culture.


For Dudamel, there are any number intersections between such Hungarian innovations and the nature of his own career and musical interests, to say nothing of his own attraction to splashy orchestral colors and effects that characterize Hungarian orchestral music. Then there is the inescapable influence that Hungarian conductors (Szell, Reiner, Ormandy, Dorati, Solti) have had on his own profession.

But what was perhaps most striking was the way Dudamel used historical Hungary to reflect on his own history with the L.A. Phil. The “Galánta” dances were this time more pointed and less lighthearted, sadder in the opening slow music, more aggressive in the fast dances and instrumental colors all the more vivid.

Bartók’s Viola Concerto followed, with the orchestra’s popular principal violist, Carrie Dennis, as soloist. This is the most feeble of all Bartók scores because it isn’t Bartók. The composer died in 1945 with the work still in sketch form, only the solo part complete and even it not in a final form. The concerto was written when the composer was in poor health, also trying to finish his Third Piano Concerto (which was for his wife and a more important project). He had fled Nazi Hungary for New York, where he struggled financially.

The concerto was put together by a pupil, Tibor Serly. There is some very beautiful viola writing in this autumnal work, along with Serly’s commonplace working out of Bartók’s ideas. Still, Dennis made the concerto striking.

Dennis came out b arefoot, in a glittery, slinky gown. She gave the impression of being possessed of wildness, possessed of Bartók. She treated the solo part like raw material to be made her own, which is exactly what it needs and never gets. She gave not just urgency but reason for being for even pot-boiler passages.

This is the kind of thing that could go very wrong, a symphony orchestra being a collection of team players whose individuality is honored as long as it’s part of a larger collective. Here, though, she commanded everything. Dudamel deferred to her and the orchestra provided her in what appeared, at least to an audience member, like uniquely loving support. If she wants a star career, it’s hers for the taking. Let’s hope she’s happy where she is.

In the second half, Dudamel turned to Hungary’s radical side. Ligeti’s “Apparitions” is a nine-minute work from 1959 that breaks a long beginning silence with disconcerting percussive punctuations, becomes untamed and ends with the breaking of china plates (a tribute to the Disney fountain’s broken Delft china?).

That Ligeti, who had fled repressive Communist Hungary, was simultaneously ghost-busting Hungarian musical antecedents yet still haunted by them was put into perspective by the last piece, the concert suite from Bartók’s early ballet, “The Miraculous Mandarin.” The erotic ballet happens to be a ghost story, and a particularly nasty, quintessentially Hungarian one.

The score contains Bartók’s most elaborate orchestral writing and happens to be a specialty of Dudamel’s predecessor at the L.A. Phil, Esa-Pekka Salonen. The year before Dudamel’s Disney debut, Salonen recorded it for the first live CD from the hall.

Following Salonen’s example as the model of careful Modernist restraint in the Ligeti, Dudamel then went his own way by unleashing a display of sheer vehemence in “The Miraculous Mandarin.” It was loud. It was a riot of color. It felt like a miraculous revolution occurring the on stage.

This “Mandarin” also served, as did the Kodály at the beginning, as an exhibition of the L.A. Phil’s resourceful woodwind section, highlighted by energetic, vibrant solos from the new principal clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan.

One more thing that has changed since Dudamel’s 2007 Disney debut: the ticket prices, then $15 to $135, barely more than half of what they are today.


Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $26.50-$203.50

Info: (323) 850-2000 or