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November 20, 2008

Gustavo Dudamel, living up to the 'Twilight'-level hype

Gustavo DudamelIt has been ages since a conductor fired up publicity machines and expectations the way Gustavo Dudamel has. In the classical music world, he's the equivalent of Twilight's Robert Pattinson, and he seems destined to generate a similar amount of fuss wherever he goes.

The Venezuelan conductor, all of 27, is the most famous product yet of el sistema, a massive music education project in his home country that involves several hundred thousand kids. The best of the lot form the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Dudamel has been music director of that brilliant, combustible ensemble for a decade. Next season, he starts his tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Ordinarily, someone who has so much buzz surrounding him would also be generating heaps of skepticism, but the curly-haired Dudamel ...

has a disarming knack for knocking doubters right on their behinds. He's the real deal, a truly compelling talent, as he demonstrated Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, leading the Israel Philharmonic. He's a very athletic presence on the podium, leaping several feet as if wearing jet-propelled shoes, using his arms with remarkable fluidity to propel and subdue. Naturally, he recalls to mind Leonard Bernstein, and, just like Bernstein, all of Dudamel's motions seem to spring naturally and inevitably from someone excited about every note.

On paper, the concert looked like it would be awfully routine  -- a pair or fours, Symphony No. 4 by Mendelssohn and Symphony No. 4 by Brahms -- but, in Dudamel's hands, it came up aces. The orchestra responded effortlessly to the conductor's every request, from the subtlest of dynamic nuances to the most vigorous of outbursts. It felt as if Dudamel had everyone onstage totally hooked into his sensitive ideas about each work. 

The Mendelssohn symphony, popularly known as the "Italian," emerged with plenty of the requisite sunshine, but also a lot more sinew and aggressive vigor than some interpreters bring to it. There was terrific intensity to the Brahms performance as well. The thickest chords were produced with startling weight, but never sounded too heavy; lyrical passages truly sang. And, all the while, Dudamel kept bringing out little details in the scoring that made the ingenuity of Brahms seem somehow fresher and more vibrant than ever. That said more about the conductor's ability than anything else.

A couple of woodwind or brass sounds were a little rough, but the ensemble was in great shape throughout both symphonies, demonstrating abundant technical polish to match all the thoroughly alive phrasing. In an age when so many orchestras from around the world sound fundamentally alike, it was good to be reminded of this one's distinctive timbre and personality.

I loved Dudamel's choice of a first encore -- the Intermezzo from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, which deserves far more attention outside the opera house. This is a wonderfully atnospheric tone poem, and Dudamel made the most of it. He coaxed poignant phrasing from the Philharmonic's first-chair players in the opening measures for solo strings and shaped the deep emotional surges from the full orchestra later on with a masterful sense of shape and shading. Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1 was then served up stylishly to close the evening in high spirits.

Dudamel seems destined to keep the music world shaken and stirred for a long time to come.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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