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Gustavo Dudamel and Rudolf Buchbinder

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
12/04/2008 -  
György Kurtág: Stele, opus 33
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488
Richard Strauss: Alpine Symphony, opus 64

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

Gustavo Dudamel (© Sylvia Lelli)

The young Venezuelan sensation Gustavo Dudamel, who will take over the direction of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next year, seems to pack the house at every concert here. This performance was completely sold out, and abundantly rewarding. It was also a delight to see and hear the Viennese virtuoso pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, who has rarely appeared in Southern California.

Dudamel opened with György Kurtág’s Stele, commissioned for Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1994, one of the composer’s first pieces for written for a full orchestra. The title is the word for the ancient Greek memorial marker, an inscribed slab of stone or wood, and was written as an elegy dedicated to the memory of a fellow Hungarian composer. The piece begins almost as a romantic symphony, with an atmosphere of Brahms or Beethoven. But then the eerie dissonance of Bartók takes over immediately, with a flute like the still silence of the stars. Deep bass rumblings and weird percussive sounds brought to mind the visual universe of Joan Miró and Alexander Calder, an absurd universe but with some kind of underlying intelligence behind it all. Dudamel’s conducting seemed to mirror this sensibility; he communicated these same impressions with the motions of his body. He struck me as a conductor’s conductor, passionate, completely natural and at ease, but gifted with absolute precision --both musically and in terms of hand to eye (or mind to body) coordination.

The way that Dudamel guided, pushed and drove his musicians made a fascinating contrast to Thomas Adčs, who led the Philharmonic a few weeks earlier. Adčs seemed to urge them forward, toward the music he was seeking. Dudamel, on the other hand, was meticulously exact and clear cut. In the ghostly opening to the second movement of the Kurtág, and also later in the piece, he used the fingers of his left hand to signal a carefully defined cue. With his left arm raised, he bent his hand downward at the wrist, then gestured precisely with his fingers. In his right hand, the tip of his baton communicated to another set of instruments. Each micro-movement was absolutely intuitive, effortless but fully articulated. The dark, devastating music itself was closely related to Kurtág’s astounding song cycle Kafka Fragments, that was performed here a few weeks ago by Dawn Upshaw and the violinist Geoff Nuttal, in a staged production directed by Peter Sellars. Like a character from Samuel Beckett, the modern grief and desolation in Kurtág’s music speaks for all us, as if to say: “I cant go on… I’ll go on”. We trudge forward nevertheless, devastated under a stunning black sky filled with silent stars.

Mozart’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488 called for much smaller forces and a drastically different approach. The tone of the Mozart was the polar opposite to Kurtág: happy, bright and shining, even in sadness; where the Kurtag was beautiful in utter darkness. Dudamel and the Philharmonic played with an ideal propulsive energy, an antidote to the many languidly rote performances and recordings of this concerto. The orchestra was lean, crisp and fluid, with a glorious flute solo in the opening passage. Rudolf Buchbinder offered a limpid poetic technique, and the performance overall made me think of Mozart’s splendid Clarinet Concerto, that shares the key of A major.

Both the piano and the baton were handled with the utmost confidence. There was the impression that Dudamel approached the piece as Buchbinder requested, but that the conductor agreed with that approach as well. There was no hint of any Leonard Bernstein/Glenn Gould sort of rivalry. There was something of a chamber music rapport between the pianist and the flute and clarinets. The tempi were suitably fleet: quick, bright and naturally flowing, perfectly matched between conductor and soloist. There could have perhaps been more drama in the strings and orchestra in the crescendos, as in the overture to Don Giovanni. But overall it was a very satisfying performance, leaving us wanting to hear much more of Rudolf Buchbinder.

The second half of the evening featured Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, a tone poem that demands comparison with the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. There is no question that Mahler and Strauss shared a love and deep musical understanding of the Swiss and Austrian Alps. The critic Alex Ross, in his incredible book The Rest is Noise, depicts a fascinating relationship between the two composers in regard to the magnificence of nature and the alpine region. Both the tone poem and Dudamel’s performance with the Philharmonic were glorious, from thunderstorm to precipice to meadows filled with wildflowers. But the music, divided into many tiny movements with no relation to classical sonata form, did not have the emotional depth or architecture of a great symphony. It was a fantastic sonic experience, but far from the soul-wrenching event of Mahler at his best. I would have loved to hear Christine Brewer’s performance of Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Dudamel a week earlier.

In any case, the ensemble and conductor made the most of the music, achieving a huge dynamic range between piano and forte. The Philharmonic used a lighting effect, dimming the illumination almost to darkness at the beginning and end of the piece. It was atmospheric, but not really necessary. The performance itself was full of surprises and spontaneity. There were instantaneous accelerations and accents that could never have been rehearsed; Dudamel created them on the spot, at that very moment. When he brought them abruptly to a full stop, it was like the mirror image of the sharpest musical attacks I have witnessed. The interpretation overflowed with a gorgeous passion, even if it did not partake of the messiness and profundity of human drama.

Thomas Aujero Small



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