Gustav Mahler, *Symphony No. 9,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall:
- March 27, 2013; John Adams, The Gostpel According to the Other Mary
- March 28, 2013; Claude Vivier, Zipangu, Claude Debussy, La Mer, Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird
It’s not that I believed the hype about Gustavo Dudamel, it’s that I figured that anyone who had gone so far, so fast, had some real promise, some unpolished talent that the LA Philharmonic saw and wanted to have for themselves as it grew, like what the Washington Nationals see in Bryce Harper. Harper was spectacular at times during his rookie season, and less than ordinary at other times, but the former meant that there might be more often in the future. I assumed that was the case with Dudamel, and now that I’ve heard him on a handful of recordings and seen him lead the LA Phil at Lincoln Center in an intriguing program of Stravinsky, Debussy, CLaude Vivier and John Adams, I realize that, as the saying goes, I’ve made an ass of myself.
Dudamel’s new Mahler 9 recording is superficial and schematic. He handles the musical traffic skillfully and the LA Phil is playing at a high technical level, but those qualities amount to watching a machine run, the music-making doesn’t seem to have any particular ideas or to be done for a particular reason, other than habit. The opening bars are perfunctory, there is no musical statement made with the stumbling rhythm, no tension, and so the two-note descending string line, which is a musical manifestation of the exhalation of acceptance that begins life’s final journey, is totally flat — it’s one of the key moments of the symphony! After that, there’s no feeling that one phrase leads to another, that the point of Mahler’s writing out the notes was to get the musicians to go from the beginning to the end. Everything is episodic, with one phrase and section clipped to the next. Mahler organized the work, but Dudamel seems to find it arbitrary. I have no idea what he thinks about the music, intellectually or emotionally, because he doesn’t lead it as if he was thinking of anything.
This was a strength with *The Firebird* because it’s an episodic piece, the short sections juxtaposed for dramatic and narrative purpose, and so his ability to handle textures, dynamics and rhythms is important. The audience broke into spontaneous and deserved applause after a breathtaking “Infernal Dance.” *The Firebird* almost plays itself, though. *La Mer* doesn’t, and this was the first performance of this beautiful, profound, involving masterpiece I had ever heard that was so … indifferent. Conductors like Charles Dutoit, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Robertson give you their understanding of the music’s colors, drama and important structural innovations, but Dudamel offered no ideas. It was pleasant enough in a boring way and completely forgettable and meaningless.
For the afficianando, the draw of this program was Claude Vivier’s *Zipangu*. Vivier’s music seems to be undergoing a slow and very welcome rediscovery, in no small part due to the promotion of his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. He was a pioneer of the spectral movement and easily the most accessible and powerful proponent of the style, fixing magical sonorities to gracefully strong structures. Vivier wasn’t just exploring the possibilites of microtones and diaphanous harmonies, but expressing ideas through them. Dudamel marked each moment of the piece with an excessively vertical attention, getting the notes write and missing the point that they existed in the context of others. The latter pieces confirmed to me the impression this opening work left, which is that he is didactically focussed on making sure each moment is technically right and has no idea why each moment matters.
It’s a sad change from the Salonen years. Under him, the LA Philharmonic was frequently a rough ensemble, but they played with ideas and a tremendous commitment. There was a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 that almost set my hair on fire, and while that may not be every person’s idea of how the music should go, it was an idea, it was something! The excessive palaver of the Dudamel style turns art into baubles for the bourgeoisie to collect as signifiers of their cultural prestige. It’s awful.
His lack of personal art leaves me at a loss to judge the qualities of John Adams’ *The Gospel According to the Other Mary*. It’s an Easter companion to his brilliant Christmas oratorio, *El Nino*, and not nearly as accomplished. The libretto, put together with Peter Sellars, is ungainly and drives the structure, which has a first half malformed by an endless scene involving Lazarus’ death and resurrection. Once that passes, everything starts to move. But nothing much moves for the character of Mary Magdalene, who steadily laments and regrets throughout, and at times the music goes for effect rather than meaning, eviscerating Adams’ strength as a composer. Taken together with his awful copy and paste pastiche of Beethoven, *Absolute Jest*, I think he is cursed with being too busy as a composer, and is taking shortcuts. But perhaps there is more to the music than Dudamel can give it, which I feel is also true for *City Noir*, which does everything that Adams does well: it’s smart, irreverent, sincere and even a little hip, but the one performance available is unfulfilling.
Dudamel has a jejune touch, and it effects the music he leads. Considering the clamor that greets him when he steps out onto stage, the yelling and cheering, and that he’s got a long contract, that seems to be what audiences and trustees want. It’s classical music as upper-class lifestyle accessory, and that’s nothing new of course. Nonetheless, I hate it.
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