In 2004, Gustavo Dudamel won a conducting competition in Bamberg, Germany, and the buzz began. In 2005, the young Venezuelan conductor made his U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and bowled over audiences, critics and an army of American arts administrators who came armed with contracts and pens. But it was the Bowl; who can really tell in the great outdoors?
Last summer Dudamel, already a sensation with his sizzling first Deutsche Grammophon CD of two Beethoven symphonies, made his East Coast debut conducting the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, also to acclaim but also outdoors and also in a one-off concert with limited rehearsal.
Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dudamel finally came in from the classical music cold, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of Russian and Hungarian music. This was the concert -- fully rehearsed and part of a subscription series -- that mattered. If you are looking for boasting rights, the program will be repeated at Disney today and in Palm Springs on Sunday afternoon. If you can't find a ticket (both are sold out), the concerts are being recorded for release on iTunes Feb. 13.
And, of course, there is always next time. Dudamel, who is 26, will be around for a long while. He is, as I am certain everyone in Disney instantly realized, a phenomenon. No classes in music appreciation are necessary to recognize this kind of charisma, which has laws of its own.
In Zoltan Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta," Dudamel appeared to be living every Gypsy-infused note, squeezing slippery passion from a solo clarinet, whipping the strings into a frenzy. He is sometimes compared with the enthusiastic young Simon Rattle (the curly mop of hair doesn't hurt). His energy and the lack of inhibition reminded me of the young Bernstein.
But he most resembles a young Carlos Kleiber without the craziness. Like Kleiber, Dudamel does not appear to be leading the orchestra or even interacting with it. He is the orchestra, or is at least as one with it. Orchestra players can be hard to read, but with a little experience a listener can usually tell when they truly like or dislike a conductor. Thursday night, the L.A. Philharmonic was one exuberant band.
Kodaly's dances may have ended up sounding more impulsively Latin than propulsive Hungarian, but why not? There is more than one way to make music marvelous. And it will be amusing to compare Dudamel's iTunes recording of these dances with Lorin Maazel's ultra-slick one on a New York Philharmonic iTunes download released last spring. Is that perhaps why Maazel recently touted Daniel Barenboim as his choice for successor, just as the rumors were flying that the orchestra may be trying to snag Dudamel for 2009?
Nothing else in Dudamel's substantial program at Disney, however, had quite the impact of the Kodaly, and indicated just what a bad idea it would be for this amazing young Venezuelan, a model of the country's unparalleled education system, to be pushed any further into the limelight too quickly.
Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 followed the Kodaly, and Yefim Bronfman was the soloist. Bronfman is always a blast, and he blasted through this overly popular concerto with his usual fabulous fleetness and strength. If the crowd was already thrilled by Dudamel, it became even more so by the Russian powerhouse. I bow to their excitement; the concerto, despite its tunes and arresting bravura piano writing, puts me in a stupor after 10 minutes.
But if playing Rachmaninoff like a superhero keeps Bronfman's fingers flexible, it may be a good thing. At the moment, he is learning Esa-Pekka Salonen's just-completed piano concerto, which will be given its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic on Feb. 1 and is said to be insanely difficult.
Dudamel remained in the background during the Rachmaninoff but stepped up to the plate once more for Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra after intermission. Again there were moments of tremendous vitality. And there was fun, fun, fun, especially in the playful parts and the jazzy last movement, which flew by at a ferocious pace.
Dudamel has a delightful ear for sonorities. The weird bits of the slow movement were seductively colored as if by a musical Picasso. But the young conductor has yet to find his own way to reveal some of the deeper aspects of Bartok's score, such as the profound sense of form and the interlocking details.
He is, that is to say, not a freak of nature but an exceptional fresh talent with room to grow. The question now is how well he can mature in the limelight, and how well all of us -- critics, audiences and, most of all, the often callous music business -- can do our bit not to inhibit the process. We owe it to him -- and ourselves. Greatness like this doesn't come around often.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 2 p.m. today
Price: $15 to $135
Contact: (323) 850-2000; www.laphil.com