The Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, Conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Bernstein, Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B-minor, “Pathétique”
There is a sound you sometimes hear after midnight, high up in Manhattan. It comes from maybe thirty blocks away. Very faint. In the stillness of your mind, you know it is a lonely taxi horn dancing with the doppler effect. But in the small hours of the city, you wonder who might be riding home amongst sleeping millions, and how boozily, and what love affairs or personal dramas are about to begin or end. New York is like that. In its darkness, taxis are crickets, and you listen.
Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony, ‘The Age of Anxiety”, opens with this same after hours feeling, played by a single clarinet, and its mood never truly sees daylight. Like another great nocturnal cityscape, Frederick Delius’s Paris,The Song Of A Great City, Bernstein’s music speaks the language of adventure by dark. Of bars and smoke, conversation and woozy emotion, there is a great deal in this work—of sunlit nature—nothing at all. The story dies at dawn. Of all American symphonies, this one owns the night.
Gustavo Dudamel came to the attention of American listeners several years ago with electrifying renditions of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances From West Side Story. Last Tuesday in Davies Hall, ably assisted by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he showed himself fully ready to take up the Bernstein mantle from a slightly older generation of advocates, such as MTT, Leonard Slatkin and Andrew Litton.
Bernstein’s Symphony is really several sets of piano variations, each building on the one coming before. The piano gives the work its protagonist, and jazz its city tone. The piece actually works very well, but not in the way the composer probably hoped. We don’t remember Age of Anxiety for great sweeping statements. Indeed, the ending seems so cribbed from Mahler’s Seventh, that the composer himself described it as “pure Warner Brothers”.
The Stravinsky influences, too, seem derivative, but are redeemed by a warmer heart. And we don’t pay attention to Auden’s poem any more. The symphony follows its outline, but we are spared the words. Just as well. Bernstein and Auden were clearly worried about “dehumanization” and “alienation” in the industrial age, and a tone row Bernstein includes in this symphony makes for a vivid climax, suggestive of a nuclear holocaust. But experiencing the paranoid intellectual fixations of sixty years ago is like being condemned to watch a 1946 version of My Dinner With Andre. It reminds one that public intellectuals are egocentric, Copernican and usually wrong!
The real heart of the Second Symphony is “Masque”, Bernstein’s jazzy piano-bar riff on “Bye Bye Baby”. Lukas Foss made famous his performance of this, but Thibaudet dazzled just as idiomatically on Tuesday. Masque is a truly perfect miniature, with its Chopin-like filigree and delicate percussion sonorities. It captures the essence of alcohol-fueled city nightlife as nothing else has before or since, and truly makes the symphony work. Whether, of course, Bernstein wanted to go down in history for depicting the tick-tock lounge, is another story
The Los Angeles Philharmonic is a very heavy sounding orchestra, I noted, as the Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” began the second half of Dudamel’s program. It doesn’t boast the 11 doublebasses that used to exist under Mehta at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but the idea is similar. Gustavo Dudamel’s view of Tchaikovsky’s work was upsettingly slow and turgid. By leaning into every bar, he surely thought he was being profound, but it is a new conductor’s mistake to slow music down in this way.
The performance finally came blazingly alive with the first movement development section, and the Los Angeles timpanist gave us the loudest and longest climactic drumroll I’ve ever heard in this piece, launched by an astonishingly explosive swell. This sudden energy and a similar forcefulness in an otherwise plodding Scherzo, kept the audience convinced, I’m sure, that they were hearing a ground-breakingly romantic rendition. But my ears told me something more disturbing. In those big moments, Dudamel was apparently satisfied to produce a huge welter of sound, but didn’t seem interested in making audible the harmonic direction of the brasses, nor in getting the timpani swells to ebb and flow. And to my amazement, he couldn’t get the symphony to flow elsewhere. It just sat there on a palette of thick and opaque colors.
Indeed, one begins to wonder if it will be Mr. Dudamel’s destiny to set before us Rembrandts executed with a house-painter’s brush. At the conclusion of the concert, he offered up as an encore Bernstein’s little “Waltz”, which the composer himself once simply and charmingly recorded, but its execution was shockingly tubby and lumpy. Mr. Dudamel’s career may have begun with passion and energy, but the nature of his musical insights may now be in question. The Los Angeles trustees may find that they have traded the subtle sonorities of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonic for the energies of a poor man’s Valery Gergiev.