« Composer/conductor John Adams in concert with members of NSO, Conservatory Project | Main | Teaser review: Washington National Opera's "Hamlet" »

May 18, 2010

Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic make notable impact in DC concert

Gustavo DudamelThe hype surrounding Gustavo Dudamel, the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor, was on overdrive well before he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since his tenure with that orchestra began last fall, the buzz machine has simply overloaded. Not since Leonard Bernstein has anyone in the classical biz made such a splash.

Fortunately, there's an awful lot of substance behind the Dudamel juggernaut, and it was on display Monday night at the Kennedy Center, where the Washington Performing Arts Society presented Dudamel and the LA Phil. The conductor, who has yet to hit 30, sure knows how to put an exciting edge into music-making, how to ensure that the players give their all to each and every measure.

He did so last spring in DC when WPAS presented the sensational Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, practically lifting the roof of the Kennedy Center, and he achieved something of the same effect again on Monday with his American orchestra. It was possible to hear less-than-ideal playing at times, quite a few off-center notes from the woodwinds and brass, some fuzzy entrances. But it was also impossible to miss the expressive thrust from the ensemble, especially the huge surge of power behind fortissimo passages.

Fittingly, the program opened with a big work by Bernstein, his Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety." Dudamel seemed thoroughly at home with the diverse stylistic elements in the score, from the jazzy to the Mahlerian, although he didn't always pull evrything together. His handling of the coda, though, with its broadly paced build-up of affirmation, proved very impressive. In a bit of luxury casting,

Jean-Yves Thibaudet was on hand to serve as the keyboard protagonist in this part symphony/part piano concerto, and he dispatched the solos with terrific fluency and character.

In many ways, the real test of Dudamel's abilities came after intermission, when he turned to Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique." It takes considerable imagination to make such standard fare come alive in compelling fashion, rather than just let the familiar, beloved tunes carry the day on their own.

Several times on Monday, I was reminded of Mstislav Rostropovich's approach to this score with the National Symphony in that same hall. He had a way of tearing into the loudest, busiest moments of the piece with such ferocity that you could be knocked back in your seat. You might not hear all the details, because the brass and percussion would be going ballistic, but you sure felt the emotional heat. That's very much how it was here, as Dudamel encouraged startling power from the Philharmonic in the turbulent development section of the first movement, not to mention the third movement's manic march and the dark, climactic peak in the finale. This was visceral stuff.

Subtler portions of the symphony were sensitively shaped, too, although I would have welcomed more grace in the second movement and some more refined pianissimos here and there. Whatever was lost along the way, like the last four notes of that march (just a blur came through), much was gained from the conductor's urgent approach and his appreciation for the poetic richness in this noble work. The orchestra's passionate response included especially fine contributions from the string sections, which maintained admirable cohesiveness and poured out a deep, golden tone.

Dudamel remained motionless after a beautifully achieved fadeout, and the audience respected that gesture with a long, long silence, allowing the full weight of the "Pathetique" to be felt internally before eruption of applause.

The sustained ovation eventually yielded an encore. Dudamel told the crowd that it was hard to play anything after the Tchaikovsky symphony, but his choice, the Intermezzo from Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" -- an apparent favorite of the conductor's (it was among the encores when he conducted the Israel Philharmonic in WPAS concert in 2008) -- really hit the spot.

For other reactions to the Dudamel/Los Angeles Philharmonic tour, check out my colleagues Joshua Kosman in San Francisco and Anne Midgette in DC. And one more: Andrew Patner's view from Chicago.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:39 PM | | Comments (1)


I was looking for comments on Dudamel to share with a friend of mine in the LA area, and I happened on Mr. Smith's review. What a terrific essay: a subtle recounting that made you feel as though you were there that evening. It depended on no classical-music-world argot, although the author is demonstrably learned in his area, and veered towards neither obsequious adoration (see Tomassini in The TImes) nor gratuitous criticism. An exemplary piece of music criticism! Thank you.

I'm all a blush. Thanks. TIM

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected