Observing Gustavo Dudamel conducting in Switzerland evokes a sudden visual connection to the arm movements of mountaineers scaling severely inclined peaks. Both stretch far above their shoulders to grasp the next handhold along what can be a treacherous climb to the summit. Instead of a pic or walking stick, a slender, long baton gives even more reach to the maestro’s right hand. The difference between the two movements is flow.
A climber doesn’t suddenly jerk his hands from grip to grip but surveys the terrain and smoothly moves his digits to the next, hopefully, safe spot. With Dudamel’s jagged-at-times, bounce-off-a-hot-stove beat, music that is short, crisp and loud works exceptionally well, giving listeners and players alike a solid purchase of art.
However, when the sounds required have long lines or chordal legatos (look no further than much of Dvořák’s New World Symphony—especially the glorious “Largo”—for examples), that same jumpiness employed to change calmer chords or weave together other instruments causes the result to slip over the edge into ensemble purgatory.
Even for the highly experienced Viennese players, the lack of forward flow in the liquid-tone sections required uncomfortable guesswork rather than same-mind/same-time precision.
This physical dilemma, astonishingly, induced rare note-baubles in the melodic interchange from both flute and oboe (also in the second movement).
On a couple of occasions, Dudamel eschewed the baton in favour of hands: the improvement of tidiness and sound was palpable. With so much going for him, colleagues and audiences alike will cheer even harder when this significant musical challenge of being clear and simultaneously moving ahead has been overcome.
The program began with a laboured performance of Brahms’ mighty Tragic Overture where, once again, due to the preponderance of jerky pulse, much of the music seemed slower that it was actually going: too vertical by half; most tragic indeed.
The evening’s special feature was cellist Nicolas Altstaedt’s solo appearance as part of the honours for the 2010 recipient of the Credit Suisse Young Artist Award. It’s hard to imagine a better prize than working with the VPO so early in a career. He was also featured at one of the noontime début concerts (cross-reference below).
Just over two weeks ago we heard the same Schumann Concerto with Enrico Dindo and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Here, the “Nicht zu schnell” took a very long time to settle. There were two distinct worlds: conductor and soloist. With absolutely wonderful solo lines and passagework in the air, Dudamel seemed somewhat detached and the orchestra followed suit.
The “Langsam” had a marvellous bed of pizzicato established for the famous cello duet. The orchestra’s principal cellist was a model of decorum if a touch too demurring to Altstaedt—on August 31, this section was much more an interplay of equals.
In the early measures of “Sehr lebhaft,” the Concerto finally took life with sparks igniting fire from all of the participants. Still, it wasn’t long before Altstaedt became a tad too exuberant in pushing the boundaries of technical pizzazz over the speeding edge of more show than tell. The accompanied cadenza also wanted one more run-through to gel satisfactorily—indeed the entire work felt underrehearsed and, from Dudamel, undernourished.
These criticisms may seem far off the mark to the delighted crowd, happy to be in the same room as two young men collaborated to demonstrate the current state of their respective arts. JWR