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Critic's Notebook

Dudamel's lesson in listening

DVD features Beethoven and Mussorgsky with Latin flair, and a talk by

October 08, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Tonight, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct Mahler's First Symphony in his first Walt Disney Concert Hall appearance as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It takes serious connections to get into rehearsals this week. But a fascinating sneak preview of the Mahler piece can be found on a new Deutsche Grammophon DVD, "Live From Salzburg," of Dudamel and his Caracas home boys (and young women), the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, in their 2008 debut at the Salzburg Festival.

Mahler is not performed in the filmed concert. That, instead, is a vibrant performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto (with Martha Argerich along with Renaud and Gautier Capucon as intense soloists) followed by Dudamel and the huge Bolivar band knocking the lederhosen off stuffy Salzburgers (they reportedly got a half-hour ovation) in Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

But buried in all this is a 45-minute documentary, "School of Listening," of an open rehearsal at Salzburg with Dudamel and Venezuelans working on the last two movements of the Mahler First. The ever social and talkative Dudamel, uninhibited by his limited English, brings the audience into the process. How much his L.A. Phil Mahler will resemble his Bolivar Mahler remains to be seen. But what we have here is Dudamel describing the symphony in ways that make sense to a young Latino.

Where conductor Michael Tilson Thomas might bring out Mahler's Jewish roots in this symphony, Dudamel hears buskers begging for money on the street and asks his trumpets to play with the vibrato typical of brass players in popular Latin music.

Elsewhere, Dudamel urges the strings to play as though they were swimming in "a honey pool." He describes a sound that is like the sensation of something thick, sweet and sticky inching down your arm.

With apologies to his wife, he explains to the orchestra that what Mahler is trying to do in the last movement might be compared to a guy nervously approaching a beautiful woman as he is egged on by his friends. Thanks to Mahler, he gets the girl.

If there is something faintly condescending about Dudamel speaking this way to a sophisticated audience in Mozart's hometown, the crowd doesn't show it. And its enjoyment no doubt has as much to do with the Bolivars as with Dudamel.

This isn't just about music. It is about sexy, sassy, strapping, talented teens with tones of technique, tons of testosterone and a touch of tenderness. Yes, heartwarming tenderness.

"School of Listening" belongs in every junior high school in Los Angeles.


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