Dudamel, LA Philharmonic thrill with Technicolor symphonies by Corigliano, Tchaikovsky
Hollywood came to Symphony Hall Sunday afternoon, and John Williams was nowhere in sight.
Instead of the multi-Oscar-winning composer and former conductor of the Boston Pops, listeners were treated to symphonies by a one-time Oscar laureate and a Russian composer who inspired more than a few movie scores, conducted in Technicolor performances by a young man with more than a little star quality himself.
Conductor Gustavo Dudamel has been literally the poster boy this season for Celebrity Series of Boston, his open-mouthed face in full conductor cry gaping out from wall-size photos to subscription brochures to the presenter’s web homepage. On Sunday, the moment finally arrived for Dudamel and his Los Angeles Philharmonic to show what the fuss was about.
They delivered handsomely on the promise of excitement and spectacle suggested in the posters. Where they parted company with Hollywood stereotypes was in the dark musings at the root of the two symphonies that made up the program on Sunday.
John Corigliano composed his Symphony No. 1 in 1989 in response to the AIDS crisis. People who worked in the arts in major U.S. cities during the 1980s remember that period as a time of funerals, as this mysterious slayer of young people, particularly gay men, took its awful toll among one’s friends and colleagues.
The New York-based composer’s mission in this work was twofold: to memorialize lost friends, in the spirit of the “AIDS Quilt,” the nationwide remembrance project that brought together a quilt square for each of thousands of victims of the disease; and to convey in sound something of the psychic stress and terror that AIDS brought to the gay community first, then to the world at large.
One remembers that, as impressive as this symphony seemed when it was being performed all across the country and winning the prestigious Grawemeyer Award, one wondered whether, when the AIDS storm had passed, it would still seem relevant and interesting ten or twenty years later.
Sadly, there remain too many places in the world where the funerals of those killed before their time are a regular occurrence, and listening to the screaming unison A and the brutal thumps that open the piece, one’s imagination travels all too easily from hospital wards in New York and San Francisco to today’s Afghanistan or Syria. (Or even to Venezuela, Dudamel’s home country, charged with violent suppression of dissenters by a half dozen polite but fervent protesters outside Symphony Hall on Sunday.)
The symphony opened with an Apologue, a “cautionary tale” if you will, in which harrowing assaults from shrieking violins, piccolos, and a massive percussion battery alternated with the Ives-like nostalgia of a friend’s favorite tango by Albéniz, floating in from an offstage piano like a visitor from the next world.
Dudamel skillfully managed all these effects, and also the capriciously changing tempos of the Tarantella that followed. The Italian-American composer no doubt was aware that, according to folklore, the tarantella originated as a fast, exhausting dance thought to prevent death from a tarantula’s bite. Certainly he wrote a scary, disorienting one for his symphony.
The third movement memorialized a college friend of the composer who was a cellist; at one point, the young cello player is joined in the music by his teacher on a second cello. In contrast to much of the rest of the symphony, there was nothing melodramatic about this long cello solo, especially as performed , expressively but a little distantly, by the orchestra’s principal cellist Robert deMaine. Assistant principal cellist Ben Hong partnered with deMaine affectingly.
The final movement revisited much of what had gone before, then faded gradually to a vanishing pianissimo at the close—not angry or upbeat or hopeful or depressed, just a descent into nothingness, a bit like the close of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.
It was not Tchaikovsky’s Sixth but his Fifth that followed the Corigliano work on Sunday. Few, if any, of this composer’s works more vividly convey the inner turmoil of his life as lionized composer-conductor and secret homosexual. For this 19th-century Russian composer, exposure of his secret desires would have meant personal and professional ruin, so it’s not surprising that his music often seems written under sentence of death.
This reviewer write about a performance of this piece last season by a certain Latvian conductor, wishing it had sounded less fussed-over, more free to surge ahead. In a case of “be careful what you wish for,” one found oneself Sunday listening to Dudamel dash exuberantly through the piece, and thinking he could afford to look to the left or right a little more.
Still, Dudamel reveled in the drama of it all, skillfully preparing each coup de theâtre and making it tell. In the slow movement, principal hornist Andrew Bain gave the famous horn solo a dusky glow that was quite extraordinary. But the lilting, flirtatious charm of the waltz movement mostly eluded Dudamel and his players.
Hollywood reared its head in the finale, which Dudamel took at blistering speed, dramatizing the climaxes with exaggerated ritards, then racing off again to the next fire. It was all undeniably exciting, especially when Dudamel’s able players reached back and delivered the massive fortissimos that his pumping fist and shaking locks demanded. One got the feeling that, if one caught him in the right mood, Tchaikovsky would have loved it.
Listeners hoping for one of this conductor’s dancing-in-the-aisles Latin encores will have to wait a little longer. Dudamel led the orchestra in the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a very lively piece, but a bit tame-sounding after that symphony finale.
The next music presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be the Jerusalem String Quartet at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, 8 p.m. Saturday. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.
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