The hype surrounding Gustavo Dudamel, the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor, was on overdrive well before he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since his tenure with that orchestra began last fall, the buzz machine has simply overloaded. Not since Leonard Bernstein has anyone in the classical biz made such a splash.
Fortunately, there's an awful lot of substance behind the Dudamel juggernaut, and it was on display Monday night at the Kennedy Center, where the Washington Performing Arts Society presented Dudamel and the LA Phil. The conductor, who has yet to hit 30, sure knows how to put an exciting edge into music-making, how to ensure that the players give their all to each and every measure.
He did so last spring in DC when WPAS presented the sensational Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, practically lifting the roof of the Kennedy Center, and he achieved something of the same effect again on Monday with his American orchestra. It was possible to hear less-than-ideal playing at times, quite a few off-center notes from the woodwinds and brass, some fuzzy entrances. But it was also impossible to miss the expressive thrust from the ensemble, especially the huge surge of power behind fortissimo passages.
Fittingly, the program opened with a big work by Bernstein, his Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety." Dudamel seemed thoroughly at home with the diverse stylistic elements in the score, from the jazzy to the Mahlerian, although he didn't always pull evrything together. His handling of the coda, though, with its broadly paced build-up of affirmation, proved very impressive. In a bit of luxury casting,
Jean-Yves Thibaudet was on hand to serve as the keyboard protagonist in this part symphony/part piano concerto, and he dispatched the solos with terrific fluency and character.
In many ways, the real test of Dudamel's abilities came after intermission, when he turned to Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique." It takes considerable imagination to make such standard fare come alive in compelling fashion, rather than just let the familiar, beloved tunes carry the day on their own.
Several times on Monday, I was reminded of Mstislav Rostropovich's approach to this score with the National Symphony in that same hall. He had a way of tearing into the loudest, busiest moments of the piece with such ferocity that you could be knocked back in your seat. You might not hear all the details, because the brass and percussion would be going ballistic, but you sure felt the emotional heat. That's very much how it was here, as Dudamel encouraged startling power from the Philharmonic in the turbulent development section of the first movement, not to mention the third movement's manic march and the dark, climactic peak in the finale. This was visceral stuff.
Subtler portions of the symphony were sensitively shaped, too, although I would have welcomed more grace in the second movement and some more refined pianissimos here and there. Whatever was lost along the way, like the last four notes of that march (just a blur came through), much was gained from the conductor's urgent approach and his appreciation for the poetic richness in this noble work. The orchestra's passionate response included especially fine contributions from the string sections, which maintained admirable cohesiveness and poured out a deep, golden tone.
Dudamel remained motionless after a beautifully achieved fadeout, and the audience respected that gesture with a long, long silence, allowing the full weight of the "Pathetique" to be felt internally before eruption of applause.
The sustained ovation eventually yielded an encore. Dudamel told the crowd that it was hard to play anything after the Tchaikovsky symphony, but his choice, the Intermezzo from Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" -- an apparent favorite of the conductor's (it was among the encores when he conducted the Israel Philharmonic in WPAS concert in 2008) -- really hit the spot.
PHOTO BY MATTHEW IMAGING COURTESY OF GUSTAVODUDAMEL.COM