Dudamel, LA Phil Take Plunge Into New Italian Music

By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — Gustavo Dudamel may be known around the world mainly for his extroverted conducting style, his wild mop of curly black hair, and his dedication to Venezuela’s El Sistema program, which raised him. What doesn’t get publicized so often, though, is something that Angelenos know first-hand — that Dudamel can be an exceptionally daring programmer.

Dudamel, in rehearsal, is an aggressiv
Dudamel, podium extrovert, is also a daring programmer.
(Photo courtesy LA Phil)

From his first season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel has usually participated in at least one Green Umbrella concert per season. (For those new to the game, the Green Umbrella is the Philharmonic’s long-running, enigmatically named new-music series that has often drawn large audiences since moving to Walt Disney Concert Hall). And in Dudamel’s latest appearance on the series on March 10, he lent his presence and services to a tough, uncompromising program exploring little-known byways of the Italian avant-garde in the 20th century.

It might have been one of his most daring programs of all. Or maybe not.

Although two of the four works (Luca Francesconi’s Animus and Luciano Berio’s Calmo) were U.S. premieres, all of them can be found on CD, with Luigi Nono’s “Hay que caminar” soñando available in multiple versions. Moreover, for some listeners with long memories, the program actually conjured mists of nostalgia for the old CalArts Contemporary Music festivals on the CalArts campus in Valencia north of L.A. some 30 years and more ago. The symmetry of programming at Green Umbrella mirrored that of CalArts — four works, two on either side of the intermission, of similar length (mostly around 14 minutes) involving chamber ensembles. The sound of the music in general also reminded me of those old festivals: experiments with sonorities, many silences, tenuous attachments to tonality, if any. No pop culture allowed.

Fond personal memories aside, another idea that tied these Italian-made compositions together was that each piece was a dreamscape of one form or another. Nono’s “Hay que caminar” soñando (translation, “You must walk” dreaming) was his last completed composition (1989), a quiet, spare, ascetically feathery three-movement work for two violins whose spatial element was right at home in Disney Hall.

L.A. Philharmonic violinists Nathan Cole and Bing Wang started the piece at adjacent music stands near the center of the stage, then moved to stands at opposite portions of that stage, and then seemed to sleepwalk upstairs, Cole to a mid-level position in the rear orchestra seats, Wang into the organ loft. Usually the piece takes about 26-27 minutes to play, but Cole and Wang got through it in only 19.

Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant sang Berio's 'Calmo.' (Mats Bäcker)
Charlotte Hellekant sang Berio’s ‘Calmo.’ (Mats Bäcker)

Francesconi’s Animus (1995), on the other hand, was a wild dreamscape with Philharmonic trombonist James Miller riding, triggering, and interacting with cascades of surround-sound electronics manned by Matthew Davis. Sometimes it sounded like a howling wind cave, or an approaching thunderstorm in the jungle. Sometimes the trombone could simulate an entire electronically-altered brass section cannonading and growling, enveloping the hall in stunningly-projected electronic sound.

Dudamel limited his participation to the second half of the program, leading two configurations of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in Berio’s Calmo and Giacinto Scelsi’s Anahit with pinpoint control.

Originally a vehicle for the inimitable Cathy Berberian (Berio’s wife), Calmo (1974) drifts and slides in a slippery haze underneath a nebulous strung-together text drawn from many sources; it has a surreal quality that one often hears in Berio. The barefooted mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant sang from memory with a bit of a wobble, the sound of jingling bells on her wrists reinforced by other bells shaken by percussionist Joseph Pereira.

Jennifer Koh was soloist in Giacinto Scelsi’s 'Anahit.' (Juergen Frank)
Jennifer Koh was soloist in Giacinto Scelsi’s ‘Anahit.’ (Juergen Frank)

With Anahit, from way back in 1965, the evening concluded in a welter of microtones around a limited range of pitches, the textures becoming weirder and more mournful as the piece progressed, with novel sonorities coming from a tenor sax, a bass clarinet, and ultimately a slide whistle. Violinist Jennifer Koh managed the solo part with precision and passion, typically throwing her whole body into her playing in sharp contrast to Dudamel’s physical restraint.

So after all of the exertions of leading Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in four tempestuous performances over the previous weekend, this program amounted to a cool-down exercise for Dudamel before taking the LA Phil on an Asian tour. His alert audience seemed to savor every dissonance and microtone.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.