Creating a charismatic aura around yourself isn’t easy if you’re a symphony conductor. Somebody else writes the music you perform. A hundred other people play it. When you’re working, your back is to your audience.
Yet Gustavo Dudamel, young Venezuelan conductor extraordinaire, proved Wednesday night exactly why he’s a figure of intense charisma in the classical world these days. The moment, for me, was just after the beginning of the second movement of the Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 that Dudamel performed at Roy Thomson Hall with his Los Angeles Philharmonic. This is the movement that starts with a famous horn melody, but it wasn’t the opening of the movement that was extraordinary. It was what happened next, and what continued to happen for the rest of the symphony. Dudamel managed to coax out of his musicians a performance of this most familiar of symphonies that was fresh and vital, dramatic without being melodramatic, emotional without the usual cloying Tchaikovsy-esque sentimentality.
And this was Dudamel’s accomplishment, not that of his musicians. He brought the piece to life by the most simple route – by playing it properly, that is, as written. You’d think that would be a given in the orchestral world, but as conductor Gunther Schuller has noted, Tchaikovsky is the worst performed composer in the entire classical repertoire. Dudamel energized Tchaikosvky by bringing out the beautiful inner parts of his harmonies, by following his musical lines to their logical conclusion, not abandoning them when the pretty tunes ran out, and by making the most of the composer’s vital and sometimes complex rhythms. Dudamel took Tchaikovsky, in a word, seriously. This musician of the south joined hands with this composer of the north, and the result was a winter scene, to be sure, with its drama and extremes, but bathed in the sunshine of midday.
The orchestra that performed the Tchaikovsky in the second half of the program looked more like a tiny chamber group compared to the enormous forces arrayed for the opening work on the LA Philharmonic program, American John Corigliano’s Symphony No.1. Featuring eight percussionists, including two tympani players on either side of the stage, an array of 18 brass instruments strung across the Roy Thomson stage (which had the wind players sitting in front of them resort to earplugs throughout the performance), and full complements of strings, the Corigliano is painted on an enormous musical canvas. An enormous canvas befitting an enormous and wrenching theme, the death from AIDS of several of Corigliano’s friends and colleagues during the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s.
Full of rage – ear-splitting rage – and the most touching tenderness, symbolized by an off-stage piano representing one of the composer’s dedicatees, and a solo cello another, the Corigliano reminded us of the almost medieval savagery, cruelty and despair of this modern plague. It is a piece, that, 30 years later, still retains all of its keening sadness and desperate anger, but it all seemed a bit out of balance for me on Wednesday night. In these days of the modern, surround-sound movie soundtrack, where volume is often confused with power, creating just the right shading between loud and soft, intensity and peacefulness, is an exercise in extreme delicacy. Perhaps it was just me, perhaps the unfortunate interruptions of what sounded like an infant crying – yes, a baby – or more likely, the vagaries of the Roy Thomson Hall acoustics, but for whatever reason, the Corigliano was not quite where I wanted it to be.
But this is a quibble, really, in an evening of magisterial music-making by a remarkable conducting talent. And, seemingly, a modest one. At the end of the Tchaikovsky, Gustavo Dudamel spent several minutes working his way through his orchestra, thanking them for their performances, before he turned, from a spot deep within his players, to face the cheering Roy Thomson throng. It was a very nice and telling touch, the behaviour of a conductor, however famous, who understands that his players are central to who he is.