Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Gustavo Dudamel Cranks the Volume up to Eleven at Davies Symphony Hall

Those seeking even the barest traces of nuances in last night’s performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel (visiting Davies Symphony Hall as part of the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony) had to wait patiently for the encore. It was only in the performance of the music for the first-act waltz from the ballet Swan Lake (Number 2 in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score) that one could appreciate the richly expressive qualities of music for a scene that, as just about all ballet lovers know, has far more to do with character development than with diverting dancing. Whether or not Dudamel has actually performed this music for a ballet company, he presented this encore selection with what at least appeared to be a rich appreciation for all the narrative action that Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov conceived for the 1895 revival of this ballet that remains to this day the foundation upon which just about all subsequent choreographic efforts have been built. Given what the serious listener had to endure during the program itself, this encore came as a blessed relief. This was the one opportunity to really appreciate both the ensemble sound and the distinctive qualities of many of the individual players.

By way of contrast, the Tchaikovsky selection on the program, the Opus 36 (fourth) symphony in F minor, which filled the entire second half of the evening, seemed to begin as loud as possible and then strained mightily to keep getting louder. To be fair, there were moments of respite during the second (Andantino in modo di canzona) movement; and it is hard for the pizzicato work in the third-movement Scherzo to get really loud. However, it may well be that many in the audience still had their ears ringing as a result of the first movement and needed those two movements to regain full hearing before the onslaught of the final movement.

Mind you, Tchaikovsky did pour large dollops of intensively expressive rhetoric into this symphony. However, it is hard to imagine that he wanted this symphony performed in a manner that would suggest throwing a tantrum. Dudamel may not have been quite this extreme; but the prevailing rhetoric was one of a wide-eyed child delighted at being able to set off all the fireworks at once. That was the rub. The immediacy of any moment may have been compelling, perhaps even overwhelmingly so; but there was absolutely no sense that the symphony as a whole was guided by the coherent judgement of a composer who knew what he was doing. Instead the audience was subjected to a roller coaster ride in which thrilling moments tended to be undermined by prevailing motion sickness.

Things were not much different during the first half of the evening, although this turned out to be a situation in which a little bit of patience might ultimately lead to reward. Andrew Norman’s “Play” had about the same duration as Opus 36. It required not only the full forces of a symphony orchestra but also a heavily reinforced percussion section. It also obliged the audience to deal with an abundance of verbiage from the composer, beginning with six paragraphs in the program book that were subsequently summarized when Norman addressed the audience before the performance began. All this created the impression that “Play” was one of those pieces in a category sometimes called “music of ideas” or “music of principles,” a genre that attracted considerable attention in the decades following the Second World War.

In this case the underlying “idea” was the concept of domination. The title of the piece was to be taken as a verb in the sense that the members of the percussion section had the ability to “play” all other members of the orchestra. Thus, in some remote way, the music was “about” power and the abilities to exercise, abuse, and defy it. As a result, Norman got so involved in trying to explain this that he got about as wrapped up in the ideas as Dudamel would subsequently get consumed by loud dynamics.

Norman’s preoccupation with ideas, however, reminded me of a remark (now heavily dated) attributed to the choreographer Paul Taylor: “If I want my dance to have a message, I’ll call Western Union.” The fact is that, as far as the listener is concerned, if should not matter very much whether or not the composer wanted his music to be a sociological tract. One could dispense with everything he both spoke and put into printed words and simply treat “Play” as a 45-minute listening experience. While one might think that such a duration would strain the attention of even the most sympathetic listener, just as Dudamel’s preoccupation with decibels in his Tchaikovsky performance would later do, Norman’s “time-management skills” were definitely better than his grasp of sociology. There was a delightfully impressive degree of diversity in how he chose to work with his instruments, almost none of which had anything to do with contentious relations between the percussionists and the others. Indeed, the brass players tended to be the most assertive members of the ensemble, particularly since they could assert themselves through soft dynamics as well as loud ones.

Indeed, in retrospect, it would appear that Norman obliged Dudamel to pay more attention to the breadth of dynamic levels than Tchaikovsky had done. Mind you, “Play” definitely had its outbursts; and, in the long run, they may have been too much of a good thing. However, it also seemed as if Dudamel was there more to coordinate, rather than conduct. This was music in which individual players, even individual members of the string section, seemed to be charting and following their own destinies; and whatever marks on paper the score may have provided were there for guidance, rather than “marching orders.”

The real acid test, however, is whether or not “Play” can stand up to a second listening. Would a repeat experience lead the listener to complain, “Been there; done  that;” or would another trip around the block disclose many items of interest lost in the shuffle the first time? We may never know. We may not even know what would happen if another conductor and another ensemble took interest in performing the piece. Still, it is music that left much lingering in memory; and the engaging memories seem to have outnumbered the annoying ones. Given what is currently happening in the name of “new music,” that is not a bad box score!

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