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Navigating Bernstein With Loose-Limbed Vigor

11.19.08
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
The New York Times

As part of Israel's 60th-anniversary celebration, its most prominent ensemble, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, visited Carnegie Hall on Sunday and Monday with the young Venezuelan firebrand Gustavo Dudamel on the podium. The Sunday afternoon concert was part of Carnegie's regular orchestra series and an installment of Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, the festival Carnegie and the New York Philharmonic are presenting this fall.

Bernstein's close relationship with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was most famously documented on dozens of recordings. But he also wrote music for it, including an expansive Concerto for Orchestra, "Jubilee Games," composed for the orchestra's 50th anniversary in 1986 and filled with inside jokes and references likely to mean more to this group than to most others. Numbers, shouted in Hebrew by the players, add up to 50. Meters dance around 18-beat figures because the Hebrew word for 18 also means "life." A vocal passage in the finale quotes a biblical benediction (Numbers 6:24-26) that is part of the daily Jewish morning service. (Carnegie included the Hebrew text in its program book, but printed it backward. Did no one think to have it proofread?)

This joyful score, with its hard-driven "Diaspora Dances" and the hints of Latin rhythms and jazz harmonies in its chaotic, semi-improvised opening movement, is just the kind of thing Mr. Dudamel thrives on, and he rode its wilder sections on Sunday like a loose-limbed champion surfer.

The heart of the work - "Mixed Doubles," an extended series of duets for first-chair players in an orchestral frame - drew on another of his skills: he shaped even the sparest textures with suppleness and warmth. David McFerrin, a baritone, contributed a graceful account of the almost cantorial vocal line in the finale.

The program began with Bernstein's "Halil," an appealing flute concerto with the solo line cast partly as a sweetly lyrical rhapsody and partly as a tense, 12-tone melody, a split that Bernstein meant to represent peace and tension. Eyal Ein-Habar played the solo with an affecting purity.

The Bernstein works were played lovingly, but the performances paled beside Mr. Dudamel's account of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, which showed how spectacular this orchestra can sound. This was not a reading that lurked meekly among shadowy mezzo fortes. Mr. Dudamel's gestures were bold, and his dynamic palette was broad. When the score called for a fortissimo, Mr. Dudamel had his players shake the house, with no loss of tonal luster in the strings or brasses.

Striking, too, was his no-hands conducting of the pizzicato movement. The orchestra's playing here was remarkably solid, and Mr. Dudamel shaped it entirely by tilting his shoulders and shaking his head.

The Monday evening concert, a benefit for the orchestra sponsored by the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, offered a more commonplace but no less pleasing program. Pinchas Zukerman opened the concert with Bach's Double Concerto in D minor (BWV 1043), which he conducted from the violin, with a superb young violinist, Nitzan Bartana, playing the second line. (There was advance talk of Mr. Dudamel's playing in the violin section for the Bach, but he didn't.)

Mr. Zukerman's sound was inexplicably coarse in the Bach. But in Bruch's Concerto No. 1 in G minor, with Mr. Dudamel on the podium, Mr. Zukerman's sound was at its sweetest and most passionate. Mr. Dudamel closed the program with a performance of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. If it wasn't quite the killer reading that his Tchaikovsky was, it shared many of the same qualities.