Star Tracks

Photo by Dan PorgesShake
Ernest Fleischmann summoned me to lunch a few weeks ago, to share the following concern: Under no circumstances, stated Ernest in his familiar brook-no-opposition tones, was I to miss the forthcoming Hollywood Bowl engagement of the young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the first-ever appearance in this country of a young man who is already burning a star trail across Europe and South America. Messages of this urgency from Ernest, who, in his day as Los Angeles Philharmonic honcho, introduced to local audiences (and, really, to the musical world at large) the likes of Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen, are not to be taken lightly. Even though the Philharmonic’s own publicity machine had been notoriously reticent on the matter of the young Señor Dudamel (not a peep of a puff in the Times prior to his concert last week), and even though the Bowl in mid-September, after the opera season has opened downtown and the evenings have turned cool, begins to feel anachronistic, there was no choice but to attend this debut and share the extraordinary electricity that warmed the otherwise chilled crowd that night.Gustavo Dudamel is 24. He stands, I would guess, 5-foot-6. His features are roundish, cherubic you might say, and they are full of the music he is making, and hearing, at the moment. Seldom have I been so grateful for the Bowl’s new video system; the big screens seemed to light up with the intensity of the young musician’s involvement with his music. It was wonderful to watch, not only during the vibrant slash of Silvestre Revueltas’ La Noche de las Mayas, from a time and language familiar to Dudamel, when the earth shake of percussion and the summoning howl of the conch shell seemed to fill the Bowl to the brim with fiery, consuming energy. It happened as well during music of more artifice and greater flummery, the romantic affectations of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, with its overwrought gesticulations from an alien time and place. At his tender age, Dudamel has already mastered the crucial task that eludes many in his profession throughout their lifetimes: the power to believe in the music at hand and transfer that belief, through a responsive orchestra, to a willing audience.Dudamel was nurtured in the youth-orchestra system of Venezuela, a country that, for all its political problems, seems to know a thing or two about support for the arts. (Remember the extraordinary ensemble that came here from Caracas for Oswaldo Golijov’s Pasión in 2002?) Now he leads the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra, which has gained the ear and admiration of Simon Rattle and will tour Europe. Dudamel himself has pulled down major conducting awards, and is listed for guest shots throughout Europe this coming season. At the Bowl concert, Dudamel’s U.S. debut, the place was crawling with management reps from orchestras far and wide. Oh, and did I mention he has signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon?You had to be there that night. Even after a summer of some pretty good stick-waving and a couple of moments approaching the magical – Gil Shaham’s Beethoven, Neville Marriner’s Mozart, Yo-Yo on the Silk Road – here was a night of music making that delivered a message, fortissimo: that brilliant, young talent can still emerge from anywhere on the planet, make the right moves and eventually come to matter. It could also make you wonder whether a little more well-designed pre-concert promotion, for which this major event received exactly none, might have lured a larger crowd than the mere 7,000 who came, succumbed and cheered themselves silly that night. One week before, the Times had wasted half a page of worthless hype on an event – three orchestra members as soloists in Beethoven’s wimpy “Triple” Concerto – for which any observer on Mars could have predicted the disaster that trustworthy friends informed me actually occurred.
Rattle and Role
Simon Rattle (now “Sir”) also made his L.A. Philharmonic debut at 24; our first conversation consisted mainly in his informing me that this was the worst orchestra he’d ever conducted and boasting that he still knew only one Beethoven symphony. (Times have changed.) We all noted, the other night, the similarities in the way Gustavo Dudamel gave off, in every measure, the same sense of sheer joy in his work that everyone has always noted in Rattle. You can’t fake that.Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic continue to record on EMI, and their recent two-disc set of late works by Antonin Dvorák is full of gorgeous music that you’ve probably never heard before – nor have I, at least in such gleaming presentations. These are the “folk ballads,” music composed after Dvorák’s return from his American sojourn and, thus, later in style than the “New World” Symphony. The inspiration is a set of poems, both spooky and folksy, by a minor Prague poet, dealing with witchcraft, enchantments and a magical spinning wheel. From Dvorák they elicited a more colorful orchestral language than in any of his previous works, full of shimmer and stardust, more like the naturalistic tone poems of his compatriot Smetana. There are four of these “ballads,” each lasting about 25 minutes. Their music is episodic, and there are stops and starts, but the beautiful moments are plentiful and ravishing. Some – the grandiose finale to The Golden Spinning-Wheel, for one – will make you want to stand up and sing along.Some of Rattle’s earlier recordings have been reissued on midprice EMI Classics, and you can’t go wrong – not easily, at any rate. For those whose tastes dote on the musically Brobdingnagian, Rattle’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie ranks among the best-behaved of the many on disc. The orchestra is Rattle’s City of Birmingham Symphony, which he built to high excellence; Peter Donohoe is the pianist, and Tristan Murail masters the Ondes Martenot’s infernal electronic wails. It comes in a two-disc set with the composer’s Quartet for the End of Time, which, to my taste, is all the Messiaen a well-ordered household should require.