Gustavo Dudamel leads the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra at the Proms

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Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel conductor
Martin Fröst clarinet

Ravel, La Valse 
Anders Hillborg, Clarinet Concerto (Peacock Tales) (UK premiere)
Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique

Wunderkindfest. Unless you are a stubborn opinionator, performances can confuse you at times. I was flummoxed last night at the Proms by Gustavo Dudamel and his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, in a concert I was expecting to enjoy, though not to the utmost. The Berlioz Symphonie fantastique wore out its welcome many years ago, and only a brilliant performance can redeem it for me. That Dudamel did not deliver. Sparkling as he is in the bright media limelight, the skyrocketing young Venezuelan has to have the goods, too. In this case, his reading was flat, disjointed, and plodding, with a drawn-out Scene aux champs that lasted long enough for Madame Defarge to knit a quilt. The guillotine movement that followed was coarse and blatty, which is how the whole reading went, either in slow mo with exaggerated emphases or sped up recklessly. Dudamel’s inability to sustain tension in soft passages, one of the most blatant failings in a bad conductor, shocked me.

Good conductors can inspire indifferent orchestras to shine (listen to what Leonard Bernstein did with the Danish Radio SO in a stunning Nielsen Third Symphony on Sony from the early Sixties), but I’ve rarely heard a professional ensemble as ragged and dispirited as the Gothenburg band. On the podium Dudamel isn’t as spontaneously choreographic as Bernstein – he stands erect and unbending in the didactic German fashion most of the time – but his face and hands are animated and encouraging. The orchestra responded to his coaxing like thick pea soup. In addition, the first-chair players in the wind and brass sections simply aren’t very good, their playing stiff and emotionless. In the opening work, Ravel’s La valse, there are several interpretive approaches one can follow. The mood can be slinky, satirical, diabolic, or suave. The parody of Viennese waltzes can be sharp-tongued or good-natured. The execution can be bravura or relaxed. This La valse was none of the above. The score unfolded like a computer printout, despite some nice phrasing from Dudamel. When the time came for the tidal-wave climax, where waltz decorum collapses into harsh chaos, the orchestra couldn’t deliver a real fortissimo. Much of the evening, in fact, the musicians dawdled around mezzo forte, refusing to risk very soft or very loud playing except when Dudamel absolutely demanded it.

To cap off a strange evening, the finale bravos from the Prommers were deafening, as a beaming Dudamel walked through the orchestra, embracing some musicians and lifting every soloist, however bad they had been, to a personal ovation. The spectacle seemed absurdist in the extreme – would you reward a sea lion for dropping the ball off its nose? We also got two encores, the first a maudlin slow melody that I didn’t recognize despite its Elgarian contours, the second a familiar South American carioca tune that I can’t name, either. The brass players took off their jackets and horsed around in the second encore, a gesture in the direction of Dudamel’s famously gyrating youth orchestra, the Simon Bolivar, but what is charming from a bunch of super-talented kids wowing sedate audiences isn’t so charming from tired middle-aged Swedes earning a long evening’s pay.

The middle of the concert was occupied by a new work, a clarinet concerto subtitled “Peacock Tales” by Anders Hillborg, a composer unknown to me. It was a spectacularly trashy piece, featuring a skilful soloist, Martin Frost, who was required to wail and riff for over half an hour to no purpose. But in addition, he pranced around Pan-like wearing a tri-corn mask like a character at the Carnival of Venice while the lighting system tinged the orchestra blue or red, depending on the music’s shifting moods. Well, there was only one mood, actually, a kind of semi-frenetic minimalism cooked up with splashy chords. The composer hit upon one neat trick, however: the clarinettist played a low ostinato rhythm at the bottom of the scale while interjecting squeaky high notes, the overall effect sounding like two clarinets instead of one. Once you enjoyed this impressive gimmick, hearing it repeated thirty or forty times didn’t increase its delight.

So now what? I’ve fallen off the Dudamel bandwagon with at thud. I know his recordings and the best is a fresh, highly energized Mahler Fifth with the Simon BolIvars in great form; next comes a suave Bartok Concerto for Orchestra with the L.A. Philharmonic, one of his specialities. DG, who scored a publicity coup by signing such a wunderkind to the label, shot Dudamel out of the gate with a pairing of the Beethoven Fifth and Seventh, obviously trying to equal the splash made by the young Carlos Kleiber with the same two works in the early Seventies. But Dudamel’s versions are mostly sluggish and uninspired. His ideas about Beethoven, such as they are, don’t convince me. Now he’s on to the music directorship in L.A., which like the Proms will give him a hero’s welcome even if he plays the complete score to Mamma Mia! In foxtrot rhythm. The rest of us will sit back with arms folded and wait for some stiffer tests.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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