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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Concert Review: Not Into That Whole Brevity Thing

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Debussy and Stravinsky.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Dude abides: Gustavo Dudamel conducts.
Photo by Chris Lee.
A concert appearance by Gustavo Dudamel is always cause for excitement--and for those who venerate the 32-year old Venezuelan conductor, a level of fan support not usually seen with men who beat time. On Thursday night, New Yorkers had the opportunity to hear the fiery Venezuelan lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 20th century orchestral repertory. This was the second of two appearances at Avery Fisher Hall by the L.A. players, as part of the annual Great Performers at Lincoln Center subscription series.


In addition to a rare performance of Zipangu, (an experimental tone poem by Claude Vivier,) the program featured Debussy’s La Mer and Stravinsky’s ballet score The Firebird. As Mr. Dudamel has emerged in the last five years as the leader of a young cadre of conductors who may or may not be able to save the troubled classical music industry from itself, this was an important concert in terms of establishing himself in repertory associated with the likes of Leopold Stokowski and Pierre Boulez.

Zipangu is inspired by Japanese culture, and is one of the few works by Vivier which receives an occasional hearing in the concert hall. The score features sparse instrumental forces, using only a pared-down string ensemble. Playing in antiphon, the little orchestra generates unusual drones, pentatonic intervals and strange bowing techniques to replicate the keening cries of birds, the hum of insects, the murmur of water ad the buzzing drone of brass trumpets that might be played by Shinto priests.

In the more familiar waters of La Mer, Mr. Dudamel chose to emphasize clarity above all other orchestral virtues, opting for sparkling textures. However, the big climax of the first movement felt a little bland,despite sumptuous playing from the L.A. brass and percussion. The pointillist approach extended to the remaining movements which were rich in detail, but short on impact.

Mr. Dudamel took a different approach to The Firebird, opting for very slow tempi that made the great ballet a curiously languid affair. This symphonic approach allowed the conductor and his orchestra to luxuriate in the sections depicting the Intercession of the Enchanted Princesses and the glittering Dance of the Firebird. The big momentswere played for maximum dramatic impact. But the early pages proved slow going, making one yearn for the visual distraction of a ballet corps.

The orchestra finally came to life with the demonic arrival of King Kaschei, his ferocious music roaring out of the brass with a vengeance. Here, the barbaric rhythms that underpin this whole work finally predominates. But for the Disappearance of the Palace (leading up to the final tableau,) Mr. Dudamel slowed the orchestra again, this time to a crawl.

Plying the full Firebird ballet (instead of one of the more familiar Suites) only builds anticipation for the long, descending horn call that opens the final Allégresse générale. It was here that Mr. Dudamel’s slowed-down approach finally made musical sense as the strings picked up the mighty theme, swelling up to a burst of energy releases by the heavy brass. The theatrical addition of two trumpeters downstage and on the left produced the,desired maximum effect, leaving the breathless Avery Fisher Hall crowd excited and enervated.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.