In order to be great, a musician or musical institution needs a defining trait or sense of purpose.[1. The L. A. Phil. Website clearly gets this. About their tour of which these were the concluding concerts, it states “Led by our Music Director, we took a typically audacious set of programs on the road. We played programs that said, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think is important.’”] But the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it seems to me, is currently a work in progress. Its leader, the immensely talented Gustavo Dudamel, has already (and almost automatically) placed a unique stamp on the orchestra’s repertory by introducing or elevating the status of hitherto underrepresented music by Latin American composers, much of it brilliantly attractive and original. But in its pair of concerts in New York, such repertory was absent.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, listeners might have resisted accepting on credit the notion of a conductor performing new music charismatically. For many decades, full-house audiences (at those moments desperately wishing themselves sparse) tended to squirm patiently through modern works, waiting for ever more elusive harmony or so much as a symphonic phrase, the experience more to be withstood than understood. Dodecaphonic compositions, in particular, constituted toll-booths on the musical freeway: to be bought off as taxation, passed-through and, if lucky, forgotten. Certainly not to be loved.
Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen! A conductor! And a great symphony! Vasily Petrenko's recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole "conducting animal" to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable. The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are "double-jointed." But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some...this is a man who'd have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!