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Review: Dudamel leads with Wagner and offhandedly raises the roof

The brief Wagner excerpt that opens his at-home stay reveals so much promise that even Gil Shaman's skilled violin turn gets blown aside.

February 23, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil in Brahms Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham as soloist.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil in Brahms Violin Concerto with Gil… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

We don't fight musical battles the way we used to. In the 19th century, you were expected to take sides between Brahmsian traditionalism and Wagner's music of the future. Gone too are the last century's partisan days of Stravinsky versus Schoenberg, serialism versus Minimalism, the avant-garde versus neo-Romanticism.

Today's musicians take great pains to make different kinds of music get along even at the expense of bland conformity in much new music.

Gustavo Dudamel, who seems captivated by nearly everything, is perhaps the last guy you'd expect to reopen musical wounds. But that is exactly what happened, thrillingly, Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where he was back for his first series of concerts this year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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Dudamel began the program with "Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music" from Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" and followed that with Brahms' Violin Concerto.

The scores were written at nearly the same time. The 10-minute Wagner excerpt comes from the end of the "Ring" cycle, first given in 1876. Two years later Brahms, 20 years Wagner's junior, began composing his concerto. Even the geography was close. The "Ring" premiere was at Bayreuth in central Germany, the concerto's was in Leipzig, 120 miles to the north.

And yet what completely different sensibilities and seemingly different eras separate these two scores.

Dudamel has thus far appeared to be a Brahms guy. Two seasons ago he led an engrossing Brahms festival with the L.A. Phil. At his first press conference as music director of the orchestra in 2009, the then-28-year-old said that although he was in love with Wagner, he didn't feel ready to conduct him. "Maybe in five years, six, I will conduct Wagner," Dudamel figured.

He wasn't so patient, and the orchestra went to great expense for Thursday's short opener. It required four harps (placed at the front of the stage where you could actually hear them) along with much extra brass, winds and percussion not otherwise needed on the program, which ended with Schumann's relatively modestly scored Third Symphony. Dudamel conducted, as he did all night, from memory.

There could be little doubt just how ready for and how much in love with Wagner Dudamel is. The orchestra sounded magnificent. In his operas, Wagner discovered new instrumental colors and Dudamel seemed to be discovering them as well, bringing out every detail with riveting focus and immediacy.

This was the kind of Wagner that Leopold Stokowski used to advocate, a Wagner so visceral and so imaginative that he occupies all your senses, whether you want him there or not.

After that, Brahms didn't have a chance. The Violin Concerto is richly textured, intricate and enormously popular work, but it sounded tame. The orchestra lacked Wagnerian focus, with Dudamel taking a back seat to Gil Shaham, allowing the solo violinist to happily indulge in his eccentricities.

Those eccentricities can be quite winning. Shaham seems to channel the music when he stands in front of the orchestra. He can be assertive and showy when he wants to be, but mostly he doesn't. He occasionally held his gorgeously sweet tone back so much that it blended in with the larger ensemble rather than audibly stand out.

Sometimes, though, he marched right up to podium, almost nose-to-nose with Dudamel, in friendly competition. As a soloist, he made very difficult music sound easy, as lyrical passages came out as creamy as a very good pudding.

In the outgoing Hungarian finale, Shaham and Dudamel did, however, begin to play with syncopations and accents, giving this Brahms performance a needed Bartókian shot in the arm.

When it was over conductor and soloist humorously bowed to each other, to everyone's delight. But what struck me were a couple of notes in the program booklet. The L.A. Phil first played the Wagner excerpt in 1920, the year after the orchestra was founded, but didn't get around to Brahms' concerto for another nine seasons. Wagner's sway here is nothing new.

Schumann's symphony has mild thematic connections to both Wagner and Brahms. Known as the "Rhenish," the Third takes its inspiration from Heinrich Heine's poem, "Im Rhein," which describes Cologne's cathedral on the Rhine. Wagner's "Ring" begins and ends in the Rhine. Schumann was, moreover, a huge influence on Brahms.

That said, Dudamel gave a winningly energetic reading of the lyrically pastoral symphony that was neither as magnetic as the Wagner excerpt nor as understated as the Brahms concerto. He treated the orchestra as one big, muscular organism, using the symphony simply as an occasion to sweep the listener away, something not nearly as easy or natural as he made it seem.

Still, it was the evening's first 10 minutes that were the news of the day. Wagnerians, get your hopes up.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: Sold out

Information: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.org

mark.swed@latimes.com

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