When Expectations and Exuberance Are Both Running High

12.01.07
Gil Shaham
The New York Times

In the archive of the New York Philharmonic are three batons that belonged to Leonard Bernstein, who was very picky about his batons. These treasured artifacts are rarely lent to visiting conductors.

An exception was made on Thursday night for Gustavo Dudamel, in his Philharmonic debut. The expectations for the concert were absurdly high. This 26-year-old Venezuelan, who will become the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, is the most talked about conductor in classical music right now. You would think the future of the art form rested on the narrow shoulders of this slight, boyish, mop-haired musician.

He cut through the hype two weeks ago when he made his New York debut conducting two substantive and exciting programs with the astonishing Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at Carnegie Hall. But those young musicians are like family. Conducting the hard-to-impress pros of the formidable New York Philharmonic is another matter. For Dudamel watchers this was the debut that really mattered.

Somehow, he withstood the pressure and delivered teeming, impassioned and supremely confident performances of works by Carlos Chávez, Dvorak and Prokofiev. Clearly, the Philharmonic players were inspired by the boundless joy and intensity of his music-making.

That Mr. Dudamel charmed the Philharmonic's archivist into lending him the Bernstein baton was also significant. Once this kinetic young conductor took the Philharmonic's podium, the comparisons with Bernstein were obvious.

Like Bernstein, Mr. Dudamel has a powerfully intuitive feeling for color and character in music. In the second half of the program, conducting Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, he conveyed the music's startling shifts between Neo-Classical formalism, ironic humor and barbaric power. I approached this concert with the authoritative performance of this symphony by Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in late October still fresh in my memory. But Mr. Dudamel and the New York Philharmonic had their own engrossing approach to the score, and actually played it better technically.

The expansive main theme of the opening Andante had austere colorings and tensile lyricism. Throughout the movement, the harmonic grumblings from the basses, low brasses and woodwinds that prod the melodic lines were primordial and haunting. Then Mr. Dudamel and the players caught the menace below the wry surface of the bustling scherzo. The slow buildup to the return of the movement's main section - with repeated pizzicato string figures and snarling staccato brasses - was like some demonic, forced military march.

In the third movement, the dark and wrenching Adagio, what separates Mr. Dudamel from Bernstein became more apparent. For all the excitement he brought to bear, Bernstein approached music as a composer. He conducted works he loved as if he had written them. The formal structure of a score, its large-scale architecture, also came through viscerally.

Mr. Dudamel is galvanized by the moment-to-moment in music. In due time, he may think more about projecting structure. His performance of the Adagio, taken at a slower, weightier tempo than usual, was elemental and mesmerizing. The colors he drew from the strings when statements of themes turn diffuse and hazy were wondrously eerie. At times, the sheer brassy, gnashing intensity was terrifying.

Still, the narrative layout of the movement did not register as compellingly. In subdued passages, Mr. Dudamel was determined, it seemed, to maintain urgency no matter what. Even when young, Bernstein understood how to bring spaciousness to a phrase without sacrificing intensity. I have no quibbles with Mr. Dudamel's infectious account of the riotous finale, though, pushed to the maximum of crazed and unabashedly vulgar exuberance.

Mr. Dudamel's connection to Bernstein was reinforced with a restless and engrossing performance of the opening work, the "Sinfonía India" by Chávez, a Mexican Copland, who died in 1978. This 14-minute, one-movement symphony had not been heard at the Philharmonic since Bernstein conducted it in 1961. Though it incorporates melodies from Indian tribes in western Mexican states, the piece is not just some percolating, folkloric romp but a hard-driving, sophisticated and contemporary score, alive with spiky cross-rhythms and astringent harmony.

Pairing this work with Dvorak's tuneful, episodic and elegant Violin Concerto, another score rich with folk themes (especially in the zesty finale) was a good idea. The virtuosic violinist Gil Shaham was in inspired form, playing with lustrous tone, brilliant technique and sweeping energy. During orchestral passages when he was not playing, he kept looking at Mr. Dudamel. Smiling broadly, Mr. Shaham almost cracked up with delight a couple of times as he watched his energized conductor.

At the end of the concert, Mr. Dudamel bustled through the rows of chairs onstage congratulating and hugging player after player. After Tuesday's final performance of this program, the Bernstein baton goes back in its display case.

If anything, Mr. Dudamel's success takes some pressure off the excellent Alan Gilbert to be the new boy wonder of the Philharmonic. When Mr. Gilbert assumes the music director's post in 2009 at 42, he will seem like a wizened maestro.