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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 © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Concert Review: Joy Without (too much) Pain

Gustavo Dudamel takes on Beethoven's Ninth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Photo by Matthew Imaging
© 2018 Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Like a famous conductor on tour across America, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in d minor is a victim of its own success. The four movement symphony was the first in its genre to add human voices in the form of four soloists and a choir to an already expanded symphony orchestra. For better or worse, the main theme of its finale is culturally ubiquitous, a necessity for any orchestra or choral society. As a result, bad performances of the Ninth are legion: enthusiastic readings that do little to enhance the work’s musical worth.

At any rate that was the challenge facing Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on Sunday afternoon. Mr. Dudamel, the brash and electrifying Venezuelan conductor is known for his Mahler and Tchaikovsky, the two concert hall staples that accompanied his rise from the stables of his home country's El Sistema training program. Beethoven's work, with its uncomfortable vocal intervals and tricky counterpoint can daunt any maestro,  no matter how famous.

The concert opened with yet another marker of the Leonard Bernstein centennial, the tripartite choral work Chichester Psalms. Countertenor John Holiday soared over the orchestra, singing with particular beauty in the slow passages of the second movement. Mr. Dudamel conducted the work with vigor and respect for Bernstein’s score. While this performance was compelling in the first two movements, the last was played with too much reverence, missing the fiery, heavenly inspiration which stirred Bernstein's pen to life in the first place.

Beethoven's Ninth is all about heaven-storming, from the descending, mysterious chords that open the first movement to the fiery development, where the orchestra returns obsessively to small, cell-like ideas that are met with roars of protest from the brass and timpani. The Los Angeles players showed their quality here, with pure, sweet tone in the horns and winds and a shimmering, shuddering curtain of strings that lifted quickly at the conductor's direction to unveil the glowing sword of the central thematic idea.

The Scherzo was not quite an exercise in controlled violence, but more of an actual dance with the strings quick-stepping with short strokes. The explosions came from the solo timpani, which banged out its three note theme with volume and enthusiasm. In the central trio section, Mr. Dudamel showed the listener clearly how this movement sets up the famous choral finale, a revelation that was quickly forgotten in a second frenzy of violent dance.

In the slow movement, Mr. Dudamel showed the discipline and focus that made this a fine traversal through an Adagio that can be blurred and shapeless in the wrong hands. He molded the melodic line carefully, helped by the high quality of the woodwinds and the deep sense of longing that fulfilled every note. That longing started to find fulfillment with the opening explosion of chaos that starts the first movement, and the gruff dialogue between the low strings and the rest of the orchestra that leads down the last twists and turns to the "Ode to Joy."

For the vocal part of the symphony, the Concert Chorale of New York was supplanted by four soloists. Two of them were planned and two of them, tenor Issachah Savage and bass Soloman Howard, himself a late sub in for the ill Davóne Tines. Mr. Howard sounded a little relieved at the end of his first lines of recitative, which are awkwardly written and have a long difficult melisma passage. He sounded much more at ease as the choir entered behind him.

Mr. Savage coped well with his high solo but was sometimes drowned out by Mr. Dudamel's orchestral enthusiasm. The long, elaborate set of variations and counterpoint ended with a high-speed chase through the final presto, with Mr. Dudamel driving the orchestra with a relentless fury that only comes out when there is trust between an orchestra and its music director. 

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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.