He got rhythm: Gustavo Dudamel’s Boston visit…and Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic

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Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Philharmonic at Symphony Hall. Photo Robert Torres.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Philharmonic at Symphony Hall. Photo Robert Torres.

Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic young (he turned 33 at the end of January) music director of the LA Philharmonic returned to Boston for the first time since he and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela lit a fire under the audience at Symphony Hall in November of 2007. He was here in two capacities: conducting the LA Phil at Symphony Hall on the last stop of its seven-city North American tour (nine concerts in the US and Canada in 13 days), and leading an hour-long open rehearsal at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium with players eight to 15 years old and graduate students—about 114 of them—from the Sistema Side by Side orchestra established last fall by Cambridge’s Longy School of Music of Bard College.

The Simón Bolívar Orchestra is the senior ensemble created by Venezuela’s visionary José Antonio Abreu as part of El Sistema, the celebrated program of music education he started 35 years ago that gives youngsters the chance to extricate themselves from horrendous poverty, literally keeping them off the dangerous streets, through music lessons, playing in orchestras, and becoming either professional musicians, instrument makers, or part of the administration of the program. Some half-a-million young Venezuelans have been rescued by this extraordinary program, which Abreu has managed to keep funded despite Venezuela’s wildly veering changes in government. Dudamel and 28-year-old bassist Edicson Ruiz, who at 17 became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic, are El Sistema’s best known “products.”

Cellist Mark Churchill, dean of NEC’s preparatory school, brought this program to the attention of the New England Conservatory, which sponsored the 2007 Dudamel Symphony Hall concert. That affiliation has been dropped by NEC and taken up by Longy, which through its connection the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), has greatly expanded Sistema-modeled programs in Massachusetts and LA. Students come to “nucleos” for weekly rehearsals and give public concerts. A recent concert in Cambridge was led by conductor and Bard president Leon Botstein. In LA, this program for social change through music is called Take a Stand. In Massachusetts the orchestra, which has Longy graduate student mentors sitting with the younger players, is called Sistema Side by Side.

With the cooperation of the Celebrity Series of Boston, which was importing the LA Phil for the first time since 1983, and the LA Phil itself, Dudamel offered this free public open rehearsal. Kresge was packed. The orchestra included Massachusetts players from as far away as Pittsfield, and ten from YOLA. It was an enthralling hour. Dudamel first led a run-through of Bizet’s familiar Farandole, a movement from his second L’Arlésienne Suite. It was an effortful and monochromatic performance—loud and shapeless—all too typical of a “student orchestra.” Then Dudamel went to work. Hard work. He’d lead a few bars then stop, and offer the orchestra vivid images for how to think of the music—phrasing, rhythm, tone, dynamics. They’d play it again, and he’d stop again. He was miked so we all could hear what he was saying, and a frontal view of him was projected on a large screen above the Kresge stage.

For the broad opening march, he asked the players to think of dancers with very long legs. For the lighter, more delicate, rhythmically trickier fast section, he wanted them to picture dancers with tiny legs skittering about. They began to differentiate the rhythms. After more than half an hour of this kind of intricate reworking, the second run-through sounded like a genuine musical experience. Even the playing itself sounded better.

Then Dudamel repeated the process with the Finale of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony (which he’d be conducting with the LA Phil the next day). This was even harder. He needed to encourage the players to breathe, to “sing” the music. “I love to sing,” he said, “but not in public. In the shower.” Only when neighbors begin to complain does he know he’s singing with enough feeling. And finally, here too, the final version was significantly more musical.

Longy’s intrepid president Karen Zorn introduced Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, who was on hand to present the young conductor with the Lifetime Achievement Award in her father’s name, commenting on his similarities to her father: “His energy, his intensity, his physicality, his joy are as familiar to me as the back of my hand. If only my father had lived long enough to see El Sistema.” “We try to do our best through music,” Dudamel responded. “I’m a son of El Sistema—this beautiful dream of music and to change lives through music.” Festive fund-raising receptions preceded and followed the open rehearsal.

*

Four days before the Dudamel/LA Phil concert, the Celebrity Series brought the Israel Philharmonic under the baton of its Music Director for Life Zubin Mehta, who’ll be turning 78 in April. The program was the daunting Eighth Symphony of Anton Bruckner. And I’m sorry to report that the orchestra seemed quite daunted by this massive, intermissionless work. I was curious about Mehta, whom I hadn’t heard conduct in many years. The most impressive thing about him is his perfect posture—he’s like a ramrod, except that he waves his arms about and wriggles his fingers—and that he uses no podium railing. He conducts in little phrases, not long-range rhythms. And he rather emphasized—instead of sorting out—Bruckner’s thick orchestral textures. In the great Adagio, the beautiful theme was so buried in that texture, I could barely hear it.

Bruckner needs a great ear. The late composer/conductor Leon Kirchner led extraordinarily crystalline, forward-moving Bruckner performances with his Harvard Chamber Orchestra during many summers in the 1980s and early ‘90s—fleet, lean, polyphonic, so you could hear every line woven into those great organ-like chords. Only a few weeks earlier, Benjamin Zander led the Boston Philharmonic in a beautiful and riveting Bruckner Seventh. Bostonians know what great Bruckner sounds like.

The orchestra, under the name Palestine Symphony Orchestra, was founded in 1936 by the violinist Bronislaw Huberman as a way to provide a musical home for the Jewish musicians forced out of Germany by the Nazis. Arturo Toscanini led the first concert. Mehta has been conducting the Israel Philharmonic since 1968. But in its current state, with the sound of the BSO still resonating through Symphony Hall, the orchestra didn’t sound like a top-tier ensemble. Neither Mehta nor the program attracted a full house. The event was a disappointment.

*

Dudamel is another story. He may be the most popular conductor in the world today. The Sunday of the LA Phil concert, crowds were pouring into the sold-out hall. A small number of picketers were assembling on Mass. Ave. to protest his refusal to speak out publicly and vigorously against the repressive Venezuelan government. “DUDAMEL: MLK SAID SILENCE IS BETRAYAL” read the one sign, which was also on the MIT lawn outside of Kresge the day before. Dudamel told an interviewer that he was against all violence. But as the most renowned representative of El Sistema, in order not to threaten its funding, he clearly feels he needs to walk a thin political tightrope, just as his mentor José Antonio Abreu has done since 1975. 

The orchestra brought two programs on this heavy-duty tour. The one Boston got included John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 (completed in 1989), often referred to by its first-movement title, “of rage and remembrance”—an elegiac and often bitter outcry against the loss of three of Corigliano’s friends to AIDS—and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the Russian composer’s outcry against fate, more than likely the fate of being born homosexual. Although this wasn’t how it was being advertised or discussed, this was a program with a powerful gay subtext. Led by a conductor presumably without one.

The Corigliano is not quite the masterpiece it seems to be trying hard to be. With its heart all over its sleeve, it shrieks its anguish so excessively (Corigliano describes the ending of the second movement as “a brutal scream”) that some of the players have to wear ear-protectors not to damage their hearing. There’s something more willful than inspired about all the melodramatic wailing, clanging, and crashing (the score calls for police whistle, anvil, and brake drum). Corigliano has composed some good tunes—some turn up in his post-Mozart opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, or in his Oscar-winning film score to The Red Violin—but the First Symphony never quite ascends to a truly memorable one. Little of the music stays with me. But when it laments more inwardly, as in the second movement passage for two cellos, or the off-stage piano playing a little tango by Albeniz (among the friends Corigliano is mourning are a cellist and a pianist), or the passages with four mandolins, or the entire epilogue, which recapitulates earlier music both onstage and off, the music seems more sincerely felt, less a matter of public display than private grief.

Leonard Slatkin led the Boston premiere with the BSO in 1993. Panels from the AIDS quilt, which was one of Corigliano’s inspirations, were then hanging at Symphony Hall.

Dudamel and his Angelinos—quite a youthful group—had an admirable crispness and vigor that were pointedly on target. Dudamel signaled aleatoric (improvisatory) passages in the score by holding up one, two, or three fingers (bewildering many people in the audience), so no one ever got derailed. It helped too that Dudamel, like Christoph von Dohnányi with the BSO earlier in the week, divided the violin sections antiphonally, allowing the radiant Symphony Hall acoustics more breathing space (would that BSO music director designate Andris Nelsons will eventually hear the value of this seating plan, although using it didn’t really help Mehta in the Bruckner). Corigliano himself, who just turned 76 and is still matinee-idol handsome, was present to take a bow and seemed humbled by the enormous ovation for himself and his work.

After a long intermission and an unusually long wait for Dudamel to reappear on stage, we got the Tchaikovsky Fifth. The Russian composer’s argument with Fate and his acquiescence to it was for the most part not entirely successfully achieved. Though playing was often quite beautiful, including the memorable horn solo that opens the slow movement, it was not clear to me what any of it meant. Plenty of energy but without content. Here’s what a friend wrote to me about the Tchaikovsky:

My first thought was that in the slow introduction , Dudamel did not know what to do. His impulse is basically rhythmic and that introduction gives you nothing in that department. Once the rhythm started, he was on his game. I know that every conductor has ideas about sound, about how the orchestra should sound. But especially once we got into the Tchaikovsky, I just felt that his concept of the actual sound was way too loud and too brassy—i.e., it was not just the Corigliano. He really likes the brass and likes their big sound. There was a lot that was just terrific. … But once again I just was not moved. How can you not be moved by the opening horn solo in the slow movement! It came to me later that he knows how to be exciting and thrilling, but he does not know how to be tragic. Maybe he is just too young, maybe he has not suffered enough.

But the performance swept into life in the last movement, and the symphony ended on a note of joy—rhythmic joy. That’s really what Dudamel has going for him. And that gift for rhythm—of rhythmic dynamics—was just what he was giving to the kids and grad students in the Side by Side Orchestra. Might working with the kids on this movement the day before actually have helped Dudamel finally make the grown-up performance so exciting?

He seemed washed out when he returned for his numerous curtain calls—declining (as is his custom) to take any by himself or from the podium. At one point, concertmaster Martin Chalifour refused to get up and the whole orchestra stayed seated, applauding him along with the audience. But Dudamel shrank back into the group. Finally he returned to lead an encore, the exhilarating Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and it too erupted with rhythmic life, an exciting, exuberant dance.

Next day there was an announcement from the LA Phil that Dudamel had flown home suffering from serious flu symptoms and was cancelling his concert with the New York Philharmonic later in the week. He had to have been ill during the entire Boston weekend and how could this not affect his conducting? But it was only during his entrances and exits that his weakness was visible.

About the author

Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

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