Review: Ma and Dudamel, introspective yet extroverted at the Bowl

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Was Tuesday the perfect night at the Hollywood Bowl?

The Los Angeles Philharmonic lineup was cellistYo-Yo Maand music director Gustavo Dudamel. The evening was enchantingly mild, with soft air serving as a beguiling musical conveyance. The program contained two Romantic era favorites: Schumann’s Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The 18,000-seat amphitheater was sold out!

Nothing is perfect, however, when it comes to outdoor concerts and this venue. All the usual irritants could be counted upon — Hollywood traffic, picnickers blithely crunching potato chips and toasting themselves while Ma and Dudamel poured out noble emotions, helicopter nuisance, the compromises of amplification. But what would the Hollywood Bowl be without a little aggravation? Noble emotions triumphed and were maybe all sweeter for overcoming obstacles.

Dudamel and Ma are, of course, Bowl hounds who happily embrace big crowds. This was Dudamel’s first appearance this summer (he’s now here for six highly varied programs this week and next). When he walked on stage to conduct a warmly expansive National Anthem, he had a contented smile on his face, which was projected in magnified close-up on the video screens.


More important, Dudamel believes in crowds; he trusts his audience. Despite the many latecomers and the usual need for a spell of settling down, Dudamel and Ma launched straight into the Schumann concerto, a melancholy late score. There is nothing like a little star power to startle attention.

Although this was their first time together in Los Angeles, Dudamel has accompanied Ma in the Schumann with the Vienna Philharmonic and the two have had engagements in Chicago and Caracas, Venezuela. By all reports, they have really hit it off. Word from backstage was that the two were already whooping it up before the concert began. When the Schumann ended, they ran on and off stage for bows, joyfully clasping hands like little kids.

The performance itself was deeply adult. It’s hard to say just how much weight to his tone Ma has put on recently, given Tuesday’s powerful amplification, but the 56-year-old cellist is no longer the sweetly lithe-toned player that he remained long past his youth. There is now an intense, earthly body to his sound. He dug into every phrase of Schumann as if life and death were the issue.

He’s still a sociable cellist, and there was exciting rhythmic back and forth between soloist and orchestra in the final movement. But Ma was unusually introspective, and the slow movement was as serenely beautiful as I have ever heard it. Overall the performance was slow and rapt, and the 31-year-old Dudamel, who conducted all evening without a score, seemed content to supply Ma his freedom of expression.

Tchaikovsky has been central to Dudamel’s repertory in Los Angeles. He made his U.S. debut with the L.A. Phil at the Bowl seven years ago with the composer’s Fifth Symphony. His first U.S. tour with the L.A. Phil included the Sixth (the “Pathétique”). Tuesday was his first Fourth with the orchestra, although he did conduct the symphony with the Israel Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2008.

The symphony offers the spectacle of a tortured Russian composer wrangling with the idea of inexorable fate. And in another expansive performance this evening, Dudamel began by letting the fate motive blare out in the brass with the flair of obsession.


But he had fun too. In the almost playful pizzicato Scherzo, Dudamel stood back, baton at rest. He encouraged the orchestra with a twist of the hips or an elevation of an eyebrow. This was a trick of Leonard Bernstein’s, and overused it could become shtick, but Dudamel has perfected it, and with the Bowl’s video screens alight, made it a delight.

Three months ago, the New York Philharmonic made its Disney Hall debut with Alan Gilbert conducting in a program that ended with a brilliantly played yet self-consciously driven Tchaikovsky Fourth. Dudamel’s relaxed yet in no way laid-back performance was the opposite in every way. Dudamel’s kinetics were applied where needed, but mainly he seemed more interested in bringing out every last bit of expression.

The L.A. Phil was not, as were the touring New Yorkers, immaculate. There were brass bloopers. But that’s not what undoes a perfect, balmy Bowl night, not when the richness and caring character to this Tchaikovsky made it matter. Dudamel repeats the Fourth Thursday in an all-Tchaikovsky program that features pianist Yuja Wang as soloist.