Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Pinchas Zukerman, violin. January 16, 2009

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3 (Seat GG19, $74)

Violin Concerto, Op. 30 (2001-02) by Oliver Knussen (b. 1952).
Symphony No. 5 (1901-02) by Mahler (1860-1911).

I went by myself to today’s concert mostly because of all the hype about Dudamel and wanted to see for myself what this new phenomenon is like. I think he is 27 years old, and has been named the music director of the LA Philharmonic in the coming season. I have read reviews saying he is barely 5’ tall, and spends most of the time in the air (i.e., jumping around on the podium).

To me, it’s a waste to have someone like Zukerman play a piece of work like Knussen’s violin concerto. The composer describes this work as walking on a tight rope. The opening and the closing motif (if it can be called that) is bells in the orchestra and harmonics from the soloist. And that’s about as close to a tight rope as I can imagine, not having been on one myself. Zukerman needed the music and was (alas) glued to it. Actually the whole performance looked like has was practicing the piece for a concert; although I have to say he was ready for the concert, given how technically well he played it. Unfortunately, it was played without much emotion. The violin, a Guarnerius, sounded smooth. However, it’s no match for the orchestra, confirming my opinion that a Guarnerius is more suitable for chamber music (or a chamber orchestra). The three movements (Recitative, Aria, and Gigue) are distinct enough even though the piece is played without pause.

My opinion on Dudamel after this concerto was that he is quite precise, and he spends a lot of time on the balls of his feet, rather than in the air. And he is quite a bit taller than 5’. I was in no position to say whether he led a good performance, though. He reminds me of Zhang Xian, NY Phil’s associate conductor. She is short (shorter than Dudamel appears, even with heels), and jumps around the podium.

I enjoy Mahler’s symphonies, especially the fifth ever since I played it while I was in college many years ago. I didn’t know people divided the five movments into three parts. Part I consists of (i) Funeral March: With measured step. Strict. Like a cortege; and (ii) Stormily. With greatest vehemence. Part II is “Scherzo: Vigorously, not too fast.” Part III is another two movements: (iv) Adagietto: Very slow; and (v) Rondo-Finale: Allegro giocoso. Lively. Interestingly the tempo markings (if you can call it that) are in English; past NY Phil notes had them in German.

The introduction by the brass was a bit louder than most performances I have heard before. Usually it sounded distant with gradually increasing volume; not with Dudamel, though. Other than that, I have no quibble with this most enjoyable performance. On top of that, he did the 75 minute piece from memory. One of those days some intrepid soul will try to abridge the Mahler symphonies (and the ones by others such as Bruckner) as they tend to be way too long. The two young people in front of me fell asleep and their parents kept trying to wake them up. With Mahler, it may be a bit tough as he simply moves from theme to theme without a lot of repetition. And the parts he chooses to repeat are some of the most pleasant ones in his work. In any case, this is a sad symphony, which Mahler described as “the sum of all the suffering I have been compelled to endure at the hands of life.”

I, for one, came away very impressed. The applause at the end wasn’t as prolonged as I expected, although a lot of people jumped up right afterwards. Sometimes hype is hype, sometimes hype is well-deserved.

The New York Times reviewer was very enthusiastic also. He heard only the Mahler piece.

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