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Brahms brings out the more nuanced side of Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonicfrom the Opera Chic blog

The almost unbridled intensity that Gustavo Dudamel brought to Tuesday night’s Great Performers Series concert given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic led me to suggest that fortissimo was his favorite dynamic level. Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, at the Philharmonic’s second concert, Dudamel finally got around to making it clear that he could manage a far more balanced range of dynamic levels. This did not take place until the second half of the program, when he performed Johannes Brahms’ Opus 73 symphony in D major (the second); but, in the context of the entire visit, this proved to be an experience well worth the wait.

While percussion is limited only to timpani, this is a symphony in which Brahms takes a generous and balanced approach to the remaining three sections of the orchestra. There are two parts for each of the winds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons), along with four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba. Furthermore, Brahms was attentive to the distinctive voices of each of these instruments in the unfolding of his thematic materials. This is a far cry from one of those symphonies in which the strings do all the work and the remaining instruments provide coloration when necessary.

What made Dudamel’s approach to this symphony impressive was the balance he brought to all of this diversity. Thus, to choose a particularly salient example, one was not so much aware when the tuba “took over” the bass line as one realized that a new “character” had been engaged in establishing the harmonic foundation. It was almost as if Brahms had been less concerned with writing a symphony and more interested in continuing his chamber music pursuits with a very large number of instruments. Those numbers clearly required a conductor, yet Dudamel elicited a performance in which his own presence seemed to yield to that prevailing chamber music spirit. In the context of the Philharmonic’s two-day visit, this may well have been Dudamel’s finest hour (actually about 45 minutes) in Davies.

Indeed, the sensitivity he brought to Brahms did much to banish the memories of the far more disappointing first half of the evening. This was particularly the case for the concerto that preceded the intermission, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30 in D minor (his third piano concerto). The soloist for this occasion was Yuja Wang.

The more I listen to Wang’s concerto performances, the more impressed I become with the way in which she approaches her solo work. She always has a clear sense of when she is presenting thematic material and when she is exploring its embellishment. She is particularly aware of how some of her most demanding virtuosic passages are actually embellishing thematic lines coming from the orchestra; and she has a remarkable gift for finding just the right dynamic level through which her own “thread” fits into the overall instrumental fabric. One comes away from one of her performances with the impression that she has thoroughly studied not only her own part but the entire orchestral score.

Sadly, at last night’s performance one could not say the same for Dudamel. Indeed, it was very difficult to establish what he was doing with Rachmaninoff’s concerto beyond simply providing Wang with an accompanying platform. Even in that capacity, however, he never seemed to grasp Rachmaninoff’s strategies for the disposition of thematic material, whether it involved exposition or embellishment. The result was an almost incoherent mass of sonorities into which Wang gamely tried to insert her own voice but with little success. One could still admire the virtues of that voice, as much for its lyricism as its sure command of some of Rachmaninoff’s boldest virtuoso turns; but the overall effect could not be anything other than disturbingly incongruous.

There was a similar problem of coherence in the “overture” for the evening, “Blow bright” by the Danish composer Daníel Bjarnason, who now resides in Iceland. Where Tuesday evening had featured a meticulous account of John Corigliano’s management of very large-scale orchestral resources (including a vast array of percussion), Bjarnason’s score emerged as little more than a not particularly judicious sampling across a diverse palette of sonorities (in the course of which a few daubs reminiscent of Corigliano emerged). If there was more to this music, Dudamel never really managed to express it.

The result was a sadly unbalanced evening, which, fortunately, saved the best for the last.