(Swans - January 17, 2011) Gustavo Dudamel, music director, led the Los Angeles Philharmonic (LAP) in a concert entitled "Celebration" at the Walt Disney Hall on December 29. The program was broadcast as a "Great Performance" on public television and the featured soloist was tenor Juan Diego Florez (b. 1973) from Peru. The concert was preceded on television with an hour's presentation of interviews by Los Angeles talk show host and personality Tavis Smiley (b. 1964), which featured Dudamel, the orchestra, and "el Sistema," a program founded by the Venezuelan musician, educator, and activist José Antonio Abreu (b. 1939). That sensational and justly heralded program of universal music education for disadvantaged young people started in Venezuela (over 600 youth orchestras in that country alone) and is now gathering disciples in various parts of the world including the United States. Dudamel himself has been the most celebrated graduate of this system, which got him started as a conductor at age 11 in front of his fellow students and eventually led him to worldwide fame as a conductor at 23 and into the leadership of the world-class California orchestra, which he now leads. The present CEO of the orchestra, Deborah Borda, preened herself to Smiley on her perspicacity in tracking down the prize-winning conductorial Wunderkind all over the world until he accepted an offer from her that he couldn't refuse to become the orchestra's new music director. Smiley ended his show with an impassioned plea to put music education back into our public schools from which it has been ruthlessly excised across the country by philistine ignorant administrators and school boards.
I watched Dudamel a few months ago, similarly on television, conducting the LAP in Mahler's 1st Symphony. Tonight's program featured less weighty offerings, a potpourri of Italian, French, and Latin American orchestral and vocal works often featuring Florez to sensational effect. Rossini's overtures to La Gazza Ladra and Semiramide were performed scintillatingly by Dudamel and the orchestra and the orchestra alone continued the official program with the Juapango of the Mexican José Pablo Moncayo García (1912-1958) and the 2nd Danzon of the Mexican Arturo Márquez (b.1950). Along the way Florez interpolated song after song from the Latin American repertoire by more unfamiliar names. Thankfully the program avoided the cliché of including any tango music or music from Cuba, the most obvious ideas when creating a program like this. Rather than Argentina or Cuba the countries featured were Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, and the United States.
Florez, not to cut too fine a point, is a fantastic singer and musical artist. He has the virtuosity and agility of the countertenor David Daniels (b.1966), the lightness combined with power of an Alfredo Kraus (1927-1999), and the command of his highest notes of a Helge Roswaenge (1897-1972). Just to demonstrate the latter point he performed, as the first of two encores, the "Mes amis" aria from the Daughter of the Regiment of Donizetti. The numerous repeated high Cs for which this aria is notorious were carried off with aplomb, security, and resonance. Florez had demonstrated his agility earlier with a taxing but tossed off interpretation of one of the tenor highlights from Rossini's Semiramide and ended the evening with Verdi's "La donna e mobile" from Rigoletto in equally commanding fashion. His romantic earlier interpretations, including the familiar Granada of the Mexican Augustin Lara (1897-1970), showed warmth and sensitivity of emotion and phrasing. We are going to enjoy Florez in Rossini's Le Comte D'Ory later on in this Metropolitan Opera season as part of their HD movie screen series.
Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramírez (b.1981) (or "The Du" as he is affectionately called by up to date Los Angelenos) leaped to world fame when he won the international Gustav Mahler conducting prize in 2004 at the age of 23. He succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the LAP in 2009. The engaging, warm, enthusiastic, and outgoing personality he displayed during Smiley's repeated interviews fully carried over to his podium work. The depth of his musical interpretations was also praised during the interviews by one of the LAP's trumpet players.
Having observed GD at work now on two separate occasions including quite varied repertoire I can report that conducting and musical prowess like his comes along but rarely. He combines the discipline, variety, and control of a Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), the braininess of a Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960), the communicative electricity of a Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004), and the choreographic podium bodily virtuosity of a Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Not only does he give every single cue to each orchestral player by memory in every single piece, no matter how unfamiliar, as Mitropoulos used to do, but every musical moment is illustrated and stimulated by an appropriate bodily motion or accent. I resented the times when the cameraman switched over to watching the orchestra members at work, for that deprived me of being able to watch GD in action at those moments. I get the same mesmerizing communication from watching him that I used to get from watching Carlos Kleiber. While his choreography may not quite equal the width and breadth of a Leonard Bernstein, nevertheless the satisfaction of seeing the emotional core of the music physically portrayed by him as well as by the infectious audible results he creates makes a continuous stream of invigorating musical moments not to be missed by taking your eyes away. Besides his ever-growing popularity with his new adult public (illustrated by signs featuring him plastered all over Los Angeles), GD still lives in the music-educational world in which he grew up: shot after shot of the Smiley film showed GD at work conducting and coaching the "LAYO," the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. No doubt his thoughts at those moments must have turned back to the native Venezuela of his own youth.
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