Thursday, May 13, 2010


The Los Angeles Philharmonic is embarking on a big national tour with its new music director, the overwhelmingly marketed young Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, and the first stop was in San Francisco on Monday and Tuesday evenings.

Music writers who I usually trust, such as Mark Swed at the L.A. Times and Janos Gereben in San Francisco, have praised the young conductor repeatedly. However, other music writers who I trust, such as England's Bob Shingtleton at "On An Overgrown Path" and Brian at "Out West Arts" in Los Angeles, have both reacted to the marketing and declared that Dudamel is a case of more hype than substance. In Brian's case, since he lives in Los Angeles, the appointment of Dudamel after years of listening to Esa Pekka Salonen building the orchestra into a great ensemble has been a particular disappointment. (The gentleman pictured above is Adam Broner, a genial writer for the Piedmont Post who was sitting next to me at Monday's concert.)

The first half of the concert was a newly commissioned symphony by Bay Area composer John Adams called "City Noir." There's been something of a backlash against Adams in a few musical circles lately because of his startling international success, with scores of performances by orchestras all over the world, but I love his music and it's always a serious treat to hear it live.

The first movement of "City Noir," which is dedicated to Los Angeles and its film noir tradition, seemed way too dense and skittish to absorb on a first hearing, but the piece picked up tremendously in the wildly moody second movement with jazzy solo turns by James Miller on trombone and especially Timothy McAllister on saxophone (above). I hope Michael Tilson Thomas, who is a superb Adams conductor, plays it with the San Francisco Symphony at some point, along with "Dharma at Big Sur," the other Adams composition commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The second half of the concert was Mahler's First Symphony, which MTT and the San Francisco Symphony have been playing all season, so this was my chance to hear Dudamel and the orchestra in familiar music. There's no one right way to play Mahler, or any other music for that matter, but there are obviously wrong ways and Monday's concert was a good example. In fact, the first movement was so poorly played, with such sluggish rhythms and blooping brass and woodwinds, that I decided not to stay for the rest of the concert, hoping for the rest of the audience's sake that the performance would improve in my absence. According to Joshua Kosman at the San Francisco Chronicle, though, things only went downhill from there.

Walking out of Davies Hall, I thought about the insane hatred of Giants baseball fans for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the longtime audience chant it inspires, "Beat LA! Beat LA!" At least in Mahler performances, this week we definitely beat LA.


Brian said...

Thank God for your post. Sometimes I think I'm going insane here in LA when I here Dudamel conduct and I think, "can no one else here how messed up this is?"

It's always refreshing to know that in fact, it isn't just me.

sfmike said...

Dear Brian: In your excitement, you've replaced "hear" with "here" but no matter. After that first movement of the Mahler, all I could think of was your cries in the wilderness of hype over the last year.

The worst part is that your culture reviewing at "Out West Arts" is generally so positive and enthusiastic, but your dismissal of Dudamel-at-the-present-moment makes you sound like a curmudgeon, which you are emphatically not.

Antoine Leboyer said...

Well, I have had very good things and some very bad as well from Dudamel: (sorry in French).

However, because of the intiative of El Systema, it is not politically correct to "question" Dudamel, so a bit of objectivity is refreshing