Four years ago, when a 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first time in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen turned to his wife, Jane, and said, this is it. He had found his successor.
The announcement, on Easter Sunday 2007, that an established conductor would pass the baton to a hot young conductor was something unique for modern major orchestras. It's never that easy or personal.
Which is not to say that Dudamel is a Salonen clone or prodigy. In fact, soloists who worked often with Salonen have been so startled by the change of sound in the relatively short time that Dudamel, now in his second season here, has spent with the orchestra that it takes them a while to get their bearings. Pierre Boulez is said to have remarked he could hardly believe his ears at the difference when he heard the L.A. Phil on tour in Paris last month.
Still, it has not been easy to actually compare their styles side by side until last week when, by coincidence, Dudamel led four performances of Bruckner's large-scale Symphony No. 7 with the L.A. Phil in Disney, while Salonen was guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony for four performances of the same work. I heard Dudamel on Thursday; Salonen in Chicago's Symphony Center on Saturday. The differences were extreme.
The most obvious was tempo. This is a grand work. Dudamel clocked in at 75 minutes. Salonen was acknowledging cheers (and a whooping "wow" from a big guy behind me) as my second hand swept by the 68-minute mark.
Even so, slow and fast are relative sensations. Only in a few places did I find myself impatient with Dudamel, no matter how drawn out he was, since he tended to look for activity in the points of stasis, to bring out inner details and to invite you to linger in swelling and swell sonorities. Sometimes you don't want something to end, and there were many of those sometimes on Thursday.
In the opposite way of exhibiting an extraordinary control of the score and sense of meaningful direction, Salonen, who is 23 years older than Dudamel, was dealing with the same issue in Chicago — time and mortality — on a more mature and profound level. And that began with context, with the choice of what else to perform.
What goes with Bruckner? Nothing is one answer. The later symphonies are expansive statements meant to conjure up a sense of the vastness of space, of a mystical light shining down on us, of great suffering and joy, divinely inspired.
Two weeks ago, the Pacific Symphony tackled that problem by presenting Bruckner's Ninth Symphony in the framework of the composer's unwavering Catholicism — incense-laden Gregorian chant and Bach's "St. Anne" organ fugue to achieve a proper meditative mood in which to then approach Bruckner.
Although equally passionate, Dudamel began with Webern orchestral miniatures written 30 years after the Bruckner Seventh. The idea here is that if you peer deeply enough into a leaf, you can see the tree. Peering into Webern requires meditation on small details, which can produce a slowing of one's sense of time. At that confused point, even exceeding slow Bruckner seems natural. (Takemitsu's ethereal Requiem was also added, but it is airy music and vanishes as mysteriously as it appears.)
Salonen began with Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" Overture and Franco Donatoni's "Esa (In cauda V). In brief remarks to the audience, Salonen explained that the theme of his program was loss, old age and death. But it was not his intention to be depressing. "Meistersinger" is a comic opera about the older generation making way for the younger and is full of life.
"Esa" is a deathbed score written by Salonen's composition teacher in Italy, an L.A. Philharmonic commission in 2000 and a Chicago premiere. Salonen said that at first he thought it almost too personal to perform, but instead he found it remarkably sunny and variable, with an affectionate little musical wave goodbye at the end. "Enjoy it as long as it's going on," Salonen said Donatoni seemed to be telling him.
Wagner, whom Bruckner idolized, died while the Seventh was being written, and the old master can be heard prowling through Bruckner's mind. But it was the life in the music here that Salonen went for. The Chicago Symphony is as muscular a symphony as exists, and it prides itself on its Bruckner tradition. The brass, I'm sure, would have loved to have been playing for Dudamel, who probably would have allowed them the multiple climaxes for which they palpably hunger. Salonen powerfully restrained them.
Instead, he went for flickering detail and the changeableness characteristic of his own music. The first movement, its lyricism intact, snaked surprisingly but naturally in Salonen's hands, where it ballooned more predictably in Dudamel's. Salonen's slow movement was austerely beautiful; Dudamel's was exhaustively wrought. Both conductors were propulsive in the Scherzo and Finale. But it was that last movement where Salonen especially shined.
Dudamel, having already produced so big and broad a sonic canvas, had nowhere new to go. Salonen finally let the brass rip, and he caught the play of Brucknerian light in dazzling ways that I had never heard before. Salonen's was a Bruckner buzzing with the pulse and energy of new music, Bruckner of the moment.
Ironically, Salonen asked from the Chicago Symphony the kind of flexibility that is the trademark of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whereas Dudamel sought from L.A. something of Chicago's monumentality. But might Salonen also have been waving, from 2,000 miles away, at Dudamel? It was he, after all, who in anointing Dudamel in the first place had, like the celebrated mastersinger, Hans Sachs, in Wagner's opera, welcomed and made possible change.