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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel, guest conductor
Christine Brewer, soprano soloist
29 November, 2008
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Ligeti: Atmospheres
Strauss: Four Last Songs
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6

By Fred Granlund         

It's always busy around Disney Hall when the Philharmonic's future Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is in
town. Last Monday he led a concert by the visiting Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and this weekend he was
back with the resident band in the first of two weeks of concerts. The excitement level was high and tickets
were scarce on Saturday, for a program that included something relatively new, something relatively old, and
something quite breathtaking. The new-ish item was Gyorgy Ligeti's "Atmospheres," a study in sound collages
and shifting sonorities dating from the early 1960s and for a while much better-known to cinema audiences
than concertgoers from its appearance in Stanley Kubrick's "2001, A Space Odyssey." Though written, for the
most part, in traditional measures and metrical units, the music has a timeless quality that results from the
almost complete lack of a rhythmic pulse. Separate lines coalesce into clusters and shift between sections of
the orchestra so that the listener is aware of changing colors and textures but not of any sense of movement
or development. The effect is rather like watching a slowly rotating prism as it catches the light from different
angles and displays an ever-changing array of colors. Very much "of its time," when many composers were
concentrating on the sonorous aspect of music, rather than on its motivic (thematic) or formal elements,
"Atmospheres" still sounds modern today--or at least "different"--despite a certain basic or even primitive
quality. The Philharmonic has been playing this stuff for decades, and has it down cold; Maestro Dudamel
presided over a precise, carefully balanced performance where the dense inter-weaving of lines was more
transparent than we remember it, thanks to the Disney Hall acoustics, and the end result was as effective as
possible in this new and more confident musical century.
But if Ligeti's work seemed new yet somehow dated, Beethoven's genial "Pastoral" Symphony, which closed
the program, seemed both comfortably familiar and unusually edgy. In some ways, Dudamel's reading harked
back to the days of Fritz Reiner and George Szell, who understood that a composer would never attempt to
constrain his performers by specifying every interpretive detail in the score, and that it was necessary to rely
on imagination or "tradition" in order to know what to do where. In other respects, the performance shared
some elements with today's "period" stylists, with its brisk tempi and generally muted emotional expression.
Unfortunately, the two approaches don't meld, and as a result the music almost never relaxed. The birdcalls at
the end of the "Scene by the Brook" were calm enough--as mellifluously warbled by Catherine Ransom,
Ariana Ghez and Lorin Levee--but even there it seemed as if the birds feared being discovered by a hunter or
predator if they tarried too long. Only in the final movement was a sense of exaltation allowed to ride the
gleaming climaxes, and the grateful shepherds given a chance for some unrestrained rejoicing. The
orchestra, meanwhile, sounded splendid throughout.
Between the new-but-dated Ligeti and familiar-but-unsettled Beethoven, the centerpiece and the heart of the
program was Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, as sung by soprano Christine Brewer. Ms. Brewer is the
reigning Isolde and Brunhilde in American today, a sensitive and intelligent singer with a voice that one
wouldn't describe as beautiful (in the manner of Renee Fleming or Angela Gheorghiu) but rather as supple,
expressive and extremely powerful. Last September, she demonstrated all those qualities in Mahler's Eighth
Symphony at Hollywood Bowl, soaring effortlessly over the assembled hundreds of voices and instruments,
yet attaining an exquisite delicacy in the more intimate moments. Strauss's final songs are his true
masterpiece, an achievement that would place him among the 20th Century's greatest masters had he written
nothing else (he himself claimed only to be a "very good second-rate composer"). Beyond their uncanny
merging of words and music, and their heart-breaking expression of sorrow, resignation and intense nostalgia,
the songs are indescribably gorgeous, not least in their perfect instrumentation, with the voice entwining with
solo violin, French horn or flutes. Ms. Brewer, Maestro Dudamel and the orchestra realized it all with complete
empathy, a memorable performance to match the inspired music.
Next week, our young Music Director-designate will return with another imaginative program featuring new
(Gyorgy Kurtag) and old (Mozart) music and more Strauss (the Alpine Symphony, no less). He is clearly
popular with the audience--which tends to resemble a rowdy football-stadium crowd when he's on stage--as
well as the musicians, whom he goes to great lengths to acknowledge during the endless curtain calls. And he
gets brilliant results, which bodes well for next season, when he takes over for the departing Esa-Pekka
Salonen as our full-time guide and musical spokesman. Tickets for next week will undoubtedly be hard to
come by, so stake out the box office early and don't lose heart: It will be worth the effort!