Learning from Los Angeles: A great new hall and a great new conductor

The LA Philharmonic: New hall, new leader

5 minute read
Dudamel: Like a teen with an old soul.
Dudamel: Like a teen with an old soul.
Los Angeles is America's First City this season. Dodgers Stadium may sell more tickets (Go Phillies in the playoffs!), but The Music Center deserves its worldwide buzz about the LA Philharmonic's hot, young, extremely gifted new music director. Gustavo Dudamel has it all; he reminds me of a young Muti. The command is unquestionable. Joy informs the power. Charisma without the cruelty that Muti grew into.

Inaugural week at Disney Hall, Dudamel and his new Creative Chair John Adams presided over four concerts that included two commissioned premieres, each paired with the Mahler First.

Respect for the score

Dudamel was born in Venezuela, but many Philadelphians heard him in Verizon Hall when he led the Israel Philharmonic, and he'll bring his new home team to the Kimmel in the spring.

With his curly locks and broad smile, Dudamel at 28 has the look of a teen, but one with a remarkably old soul. Respect for the score permeates his expressive art. His Mahler First was remarkable for its extreme reserve (which the Viennese Gustav marked into the musical score) and for the way, both on opening night and again on Saturday, it gently built, graduated accelerations and climaxed. Such subtle, nuanced expression is rare. Every measure of every movement of the Mahler had its place and didn't fail to flow.

Mathieu Dufour's good flute was a highlight. So was the depth of textures in the rustic funeral march movement, which opens with the bass solo built upon Frère Jacques, making a hero of the principal bass, Dennis Trembly. Nothing showy from the explosions when they came, but explosive they were as the seven horns stood triumphantly, led by principal William Lane.

The house, both nights rose to its feet, saluting the young maestro. And he in turn always made sure to bring his orchestra up for those bows, singling out principals and sections, cognizant that 98% of these happy instrumentalists are his seniors.

Hope for the inner city

Adams's City Noir is one of a trilogy to the City of Angels. Its structure is symphonic: three parts, 30 minutes. Some of it is so tender it's hard to recall Adams's sonic loops. An alto sax croons the slow section, called "A Song For You." A haunting trumpet solo (Donald Green) opens the Chinatown section in "Boulevard Night."

The music gets very rambunctious, reminding us that even sirens and urban ugliness exert a certain appeal. The score is brash, percussive: almost nonstop keyboards and glockenspiel. City Noir is at once a workout and Adams's most rhapsodic work to date. The ideas are vivid, the timing vivacious, the leadership astute.

City Noir definitely evokes the 1940s city of film noir, but it's so positive that it's hard not to read into it Adam's hopes for the inner city youth for which this maestro and the Philharmonic's management have demonstrated such commitment. (The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra is based on El Sistema, the publicly funded Venezuelan orchestral training program from whose ranks Dudamel rose.)

A glam scene outside

Opening night inside Disney Hall having been oversubscribed, I had participated in an e-mail lottery two weeks earlier for the privilege of hearing the simulcast either outdoors on the cordoned-off Plaza or seated inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. So I heard the concert outdoors, along with 1,500 other lucky winners, via 12 simulcast screens on the Music Center Plaza, surrounded by palms, sky, LA's white vintage City Hall, and the famous statue of the angel— a glam effect, let me tell you.

To this listener, the attendees were polite and sensibly garbed, especially compared with the celebs inside Disney Hall, where the video cams kept flashing on Tom Hanks, seated in a center row. The sound system was impressive: This was L.A., after all.

An instrument beyond description

Saturday night's triumphs began with Korean composer Unsuk Chin's Su: Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra. The sheng, an update of a 3,000-plus-year-old wind instrument, looks an octopus with a mouthpiece. It can play melody, chords, chromatics or polyphony. It can sound acoustic and electro-acoustic. Centuries ago it was made of bamboo in China and Korea; now it has metal and key mechanisms that permit adjustments I cannot explain.

The foremost virtuoso of the sheng is the Chinese musician Wu Wei, who performed the world premiere of this co-commission this year in Tokyo. Wei is astounding, and so is the piece, which is full of odd and even ethereal beauties. At times the sheng sounded like several oboes and an electrified hurdy gurdy. Chin's orchestral texture is a weave of woodwinds, harp and strings (some offstage). The percussion include temple gongs, timbales, bamboo, silk paper chimes, glass wind chime and log drum, to mention a few. The music is wistful, thunderous and compelling.

Disney Hall, which opened in 2003, seats 2,265 (some 250 less than Verizon Hall in Philadelphia) but gives the impression of an even more intimate house. This is Frank Gehry's triumph of whimsy and invention, combining the intimacy of its golden wood with Manuel Rosales's imaginative, Fantasia-like pipe organ, which together draw the eye where it should go: stage center. Saturday night, just enough blue light was projected between the back of the stage and the ceiling to suggest twilight.

The music was the thing: the players smiling on risers, divided violins, cellos in the middle, and first cellist Peter Stumpf— who left the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2002 to join L.A. in the principal post— radiant with pride. How happy he must be now.

What, When, Where

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Inaugural Concerts for Disney Hall. John Adams, City Noir; Unsuk Chin, Su: Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra; Mahler, Symphony No. 1 in D Major. Gustavo Dudamel, conductor. October 8-11, 2009 at Disney Hall, Los Angeles. www.laphil.com.

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