— If it’s Friday, it must be London — and so it was for Gustavo Dudamel. Halfway through a whistle-stop European tour, he found himself on a cold gray morning in the British capital before an orchestra full of young musicians, some hardly bigger than their instruments.
With almost no preamble, he launched them into the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, at the same flying tempo he’d used the night before with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at a sellout performance in London’s Barbican Center. Kids or not, these players weren’t catching any breaks — only their breaths.
“This Beethoven is the best coffee in the morning, the most energetic thing we can do,” Dudamel said with his trademark enthusiasm, then instructed the youthful ensemble for an hour on how to play like rebels without a pause, or like a sports car “with a Ferrari engine.”
It was a chance for some interaction with the local community on the fourth stop of the L.A. Phil’s seven-city, 13-concert jaunt through Europe, its first since 2007 and Dudamel’s maiden overseas tour with the orchestra since he took over as musical director a year-and-a-half ago.
Since last week, the orchestra has performed in Lisbon, Madrid and Cologne, before doubling back for a two-night engagement here that concluded Friday evening. On Saturday, Dudamel and his complement of 106 musicians head to Paris, then Budapest and finally Vienna, where they face the daunting task of tackling Mahler’s monumental Ninth Symphony in the city that practically considers the composer a native son.
“That’s the litmus test,” said oboist Anne Marie Gabriele, who’s always dreamed of playing in the Musikverein, one of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. The L.A. Phil last performed there 31 years ago.
So far, audience reaction to the orchestra on this side of the Atlantic, with its maestro as the undisputed star attraction, has been raucous, with standing ovations and shouts of acclaim, even from some in the crowd at Thursday night’s performance at the Barbican Center — an unusual occurrence in London, where classical-music offerings are plentiful and concert-goers show their appreciation with typical British restraint.
“I think of British audiences as being a little on the reserved side,” cellist Barry Gold said. “That’s really special for an English audience to react that way.”
The critical reception has been more muted: respectful and generally positive, if not always bursting with praise.
Spain’s El Pais newspaper described the orchestra’s rendition of Mahler’s Ninth as “honest, transparent, compact and full of power” without being a knockout, adding that “the passage of time will contribute to a more profound, multidimensional reading.”
Another Spanish critic called the L.A. Phil a “good orchestra” that didn’t quite rise to the level of Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
But in accord with the assessment of some of the L.A. Phil’s own musicians as to how the concerts have gone — namely, that they’ve improved as the tour wears on — reviews in both Germany and Britain have been more laudatory.
The Kolnische Rundschau declared that the orchestra “performed phenomenally,” particularly in the last movement of Mahler’s iconic work, which exhibited “the greatest care.”
“The quieter the music became, the greater the silence in the audience (the emotion was scarcely disturbed when a double-bass player had to hurry from the stage in the final measures because of a coughing fit),” the Cologne-based newspaper said. “In Gustavo Dudamel the music world has found a great Mahler conductor.”
And in London, the Guardian wrote, Bernstein’s elegiac Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) contained passages that “oppressed through sheer force of decibels,” while Beethoven’s Seventh was an “electrifying” showcase of textural complexity, graceful phrasing, exquisite solos and a breakneck final movement that made it “impossible not to be swept away.”
Deborah Borda, the L.A. Phil’s president and chief executive officer, said she had been prepared for the mixed reviews.
“That happens, especially to American orchestras,” Borda said. “They almost never receive unanimously rapturous reviews. Gustavo is a remarkable musical phenomenon, and that can be viewed — by critics, at least — as controversial.”
Gabriele, one of four oboists on tour, said the concert halls in Lisbon and Madrid were challenging acoustically. In addition, at the beginning of the trip, the musicians had to battle jet lag and, in Madrid, the adverse effects on their instruments of being 2,000 feet above sea level (“the reed players were all freaking out”).
Then there’s the pressure of performing before highly discerning concert-goers.
“Europeans really know what they’re listening to,” Gabriele said. “I was a little nervous playing Beethoven before a German audience. But they liked it.”
The tour has included a personal milestone: While in Cologne, Dudamel turned 30. To celebrate, the orchestra commandeered a German beer hall after its concert, donned crazy hats, presented him with port that was bottled the year he was born and, as a surprise, flew in a Spanish singer he admires, Pasion Vega, for a command performance.
Maestro and musicians stayed up dancing into the wee hours.
“We know two things about him,” Borda said. “He can conduct Mahler, and he can party.”
At London’s LSO St Luke’s on Friday, the midmorning rehearsal with nearly 100 local youths was an extension of Dudamel’s mission to bring music to the young, an echo of his own experiences as a boy in Venezuela. The program is part of a new partnership between the L.A. Phil and the Barbican Center that will see the orchestra take up brief residencies in London on a regular basis, beginning in 2013.
In a sweater and jeans, Dudamel encouraged the young musicians to play as though they were striking a match into a whoosh of flame or, in another passage, as if they were “swimming in a honey pool.”
“His metaphors for getting you to express in different ways really open you up,” said Ben Voce, a 15-year-old violist. “Nothing can prepare you for his ideas, and his energy is completely unmatched by anything.”
Dudamel drilled the ensemble for an adrenaline-pumping hour, then left to grateful applause. He had to get ready, after all, to conduct Mahler at Friday night’s concert.
And, presumably, to party.