The Venezuelan conductor, all of 27, is the most famous product yet of el sistema, a massive music education project in his home country that involves several hundred thousand kids. The best of the lot form the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Dudamel has been music director of that brilliant, combustible ensemble for a decade. Next season, he starts his tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Ordinarily, someone who has so much buzz surrounding him would also be generating heaps of skepticism, but the curly-haired Dudamel ...
has a disarming knack for knocking doubters right on their behinds. He's the real deal, a truly compelling talent, as he demonstrated Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, leading the
. He's a very athletic presence on the podium, leaping several feet as if wearing jet-propelled shoes, using his arms with remarkable fluidity to propel and subdue. Naturally, he recalls to mind Leonard Bernstein, and, just like Bernstein, all of Dudamel's motions seem to spring naturally and inevitably from someone excited about every note.
On paper, the concert looked like it would be awfully routine -- a pair or fours, Symphony No. 4 by Mendelssohn and Symphony No. 4 by Brahms -- but, in Dudamel's hands, it came up aces. The orchestra responded effortlessly to the conductor's every request, from the subtlest of dynamic nuances to the most vigorous of outbursts. It felt as if Dudamel had everyone onstage totally hooked into his sensitive ideas about each work.
The Mendelssohn symphony, popularly known as the "Italian," emerged with plenty of the requisite sunshine, but also a lot more sinew and aggressive vigor than some interpreters bring to it. There was terrific intensity to the Brahms performance as well. The thickest chords were produced with startling weight, but never sounded too heavy; lyrical passages truly sang. And, all the while, Dudamel kept bringing out little details in the scoring that made the ingenuity of Brahms seem somehow fresher and more vibrant than ever. That said more about the conductor's ability than anything else.
A couple of woodwind or brass sounds were a little rough, but the ensemble was in great shape throughout both symphonies, demonstrating abundant technical polish to match all the thoroughly alive phrasing. In an age when so many orchestras from around the world sound fundamentally alike, it was good to be reminded of this one's distinctive timbre and personality.
I loved Dudamel's choice of a first encore -- the Intermezzo from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, which deserves far more attention outside the opera house. This is a wonderfully atnospheric tone poem, and Dudamel made the most of it. He coaxed poignant phrasing from the Philharmonic's first-chair players in the opening measures for solo strings and shaped the deep emotional surges from the full orchestra later on with a masterful sense of shape and shading. Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1 was then served up stylishly to close the evening in high spirits.
Dudamel seems destined to keep the music world shaken and stirred for a long time to come.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON/Dan Porges