I’ll admit nursing a grudge against Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel ever since he traveled back to his native Venezuela to play for Hugo Chávez’s funeral. Chávez was a thug, though some in Hollywood might prefer to pretend otherwise. But cultural boycotts are futile and self-defeating, and in the end I gave in and ponied up for what promised to be a great program at the LA Phil’s 2013 opening night.
Dudamel exceeded my expectations. As a conductor, he is ebullient without being distracting, passionate but not schmaltzy. The program, chosen to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, was a musical allegory of the troubled tale of the building’s construction–and, like all things Hollywood, had a very happy ending. Famed architect Frank Gehry, who designed the hall, even made a cameo appearance.
The concert began with John Cage’s 4’33”, an entirely silent piece. Dudamel invited the audience to listen to it as a way of encountering the space of the hall–“every corner, every sound”–and thousands of people sat in near-total silence as the orchestra assumed their ready positions but never played a note. It was a fitting way to introduce the story of the hall by reminding the audience of the emptiness that it had replaced.
When the piece was over, Dudamel congratulated “soloist” Yo-Yo Ma, who had played his rest masterfully, evoking warm laughter from the audience. Ma then launched into Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 3, as animated sketches filled three screens suspended above the audience–Gehry’s drawings, projected by video artist Netia Jones, whose images accompanied the concert throughout, in time with Dudamel’s baton.
The full orchestra joined Ma for Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, and somewhere along the way the music was no longer just interesting, but captivating. The light in the hall–impossible to ignore after the Cage piece–seemed to lift the stage into midair. Ma played with his characteristic intensity, and the audience swooned along with him, rising for an expected but also well-deserved standing ovation as he finished.
Next came Thomas Adès’s short, modern piece These Premises Are Alarmed, as computerized models of Gehry’s plan rotated on the screens. The piece uses every single note and sound of the orchestra, and gives particular attention to the oft-neglected piccolos. It had hints of melody; it also, unlike too many modern pieces, had the virtue of being short and to the point, elaborating musically on a simple, shrill sound.
The dramatic crisis of the concert was the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, chosen to express the conflict and discord that surrounded the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the late 1990s, when the project was low on cash and high on criticism. Jones projected newspaper clippings of the period, some in support of the construction, but many mocking the LA Phil’s expensive “garage” (which is all it was at one point).
With the final piece, the fourth movement of Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” symphony (No. 3), Gehry and Dudamel had the last laugh, the joyous sound heralding the final triumph of the hall’s construction. The organ really was stirring, turning the whole building into a great soloist (just as every fidget and cough during 4’33” turned the entire audience into something of a percussion section). Gehry came onstage to take a bow.
Before closing, Dudamel and the orchestra played an encore: When You Wish Upon a Star, a tribute to the generosity of the Disney family. Silver tinsel stars floated down on the audience from above, a magical and touching moment, a Hollywood signature befitting L.A.’s musical flagship. I’m not sure it makes up for the cultishness of a caudillo funeral, but sometimes art transcends politics. Dudamel has earned a new fan.