By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES — Gustavo Dudamel likes big outlandish projects – and he has the energy, stamina and talent to pull them off.
Two years ago, he led an entire cycle of Mahler’s completed symphonies here within only three weeks, and immediately repeated it in Caracas in even less time. This winter, from Feb. 20 through March 2, Tchaikovsky is getting the full-immersion Dudamel treatment – all of the symphonies, most of the tone poems, a couple of concertos, two chamber works, and a clutch of waltzes played separately and together by members of his two orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
But for the first time in a city where he has been treated like a rock star and a serious musician, Dudamel has been hit by controversy – and the issue has nothing to do with Tchaikovsky. About 200 or so L.A.-based Venezuelan demonstrators gathered outside Walt Disney Concert Hall before Friday night’s Simón Bolivar Symphony concert, protesting Dudamel’s silence about the current political situation and living conditions in Venezuela, wielding signs in English and Spanish (“Dudamel, Shame On You,” “Dudamel, Your Silence Gives Consent,” etc.). (For a report on the issue from ArtsJournal, click here.)
Dudamel has said that he wants to keep the El Sistema program that raised him and his music above politics. Yet some think that his participation in a high-profile Caracas concert Feb. 12 while anti-government demonstrations turned violent elsewhere in the city that day has put Dudamel in a situation that mirrors the dilemmas of his illustrious predecessors. Is it enough for music to speak for itself, as Fürtwangler thought to his peril, or is an artist obligated to grapple with his times like a Verdi or a Toscanini, or in our day, a Daniel Barenboim?
In any event, nothing happened within Disney Hall that reflected what was going on outside. Even so, this TchaikovskyFest was launched in an unusual way with a relatively modest, low-key event, a chamber music concert on Thursday night, followed by a double-header the next day – the LA Phil in the morning and the SBSO in the evening.
A quartet made up of the SBSO’s first-chair string players led off Thursday’s concert with Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1. Their playing was enthusiastic if at times glib and a bit scrappy, with a limited dynamic range rarely venturing outside the boundaries of mezzo-forte and forte. In the exuberant sextet Souvenir de Florence, six string players from the LA Phil seemed to absorb and channel the Venezuelans’ loose, wooly energy but with better rhythmic definition and intonation to guide the abundance of gusto.
Friday’s concerts offered us the rare opportunity to contrast two different orchestras under the same conductor in a single day. The Philharmonic was the sleeker and more polished of the two, and its musicians were in mid-season peak form for their 33-year-old music director in the Symphonies Nos. 1 (Winter Dreams) and 6 (Pathétique). The SBSO – a gargantuan apparatus with 12 double basses among its other fortified numbers – naturally was able to produce a bigger, weightier sound in the Symphony No. 2 (Little Russian). Indeed they were louder in monolithic Tchaikovsky than they were in Mahler’s more economical writing during their last visit here in 2012. And when they hit a triple-fortissimo passage, whoa! — you got a tremendous physical punch. The SBSO also has a more animated performing style than the LA Phil, the string sections heaving and swaying in mass formation.
Yet the steadily-maturing Dudamel was able to do some great things in Tchaikovsky with both orchestras. Working from memory at all times, he didn’t take the shape of a single phrase for granted, nor did many details escape his net. He absolutely nailed the Pathétique with the LA Phil. He kept the first movement moving along while extracting just the right amount of emotion without spilling over into bathos, and the scherzo-march sustained crisp rhythm as it pounded its way to the finish. He treated Winter Dreams as if it was of co-equal stature to the last three symphonies, with all-out emotion and sharp definition of the lines in the finale’s fugue.
The scherzo of the Little Russian with the SBSO was wonderful, shot through with Beethovenian dash, drive and sharp accents – and the high-gear coda of the finale gave the listener the strange sensation of imagining an orchestra spinning itself into orbit. Only in the Violin Concerto, accommodating soloist Alina Pogostkina, did Dudamel succumb to some quirky rubatos as he loyally shaped the SBSO’s accompaniment around her expressive whims. Yet through it all, he and she managed to do something quite rare in one not-quite-jaded listener’s experience — they made this overplayed vehicle sound fresh again.
On Monday, the cycle continued with Dudamel and the SBSO playing the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Wednesday, also with the SBSO, Dudamel reprises his Tchaikovsky & Shakespeare program that he recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 2010 where Hamlet, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet are linked together. Thursday, Dudamel is back with the LA Phil in the Polonaise and Waltz from Eugene Onegin and Symphony No. 5, with the highly publicized cellist Alisa Weilerstein joining in on the Rococo Variations.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon March 2, Dudamel combines his two orchestras – as he did in the Mahlerthon – in a big finish with Capriccio Italien and Francesca da Rimini as well as four symphonic waltzes from Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Onegin, and a literal and figurative slam-bang finale, the 1812 Overture, which you never hear indoors anymore.
So as the controversy over Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s policies continues to boil back home, Dudamel’s answer for now seems to be in keeping with the words of one of his heroes, Leonard Bernstein, after President Kennedy’s assassination: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
For more information about the festival, click here.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.