Gustavo Dudamel, Better Than the Hype

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Washington Post

Yes, Virginia, there is a Gustavo Dudamel. There has been so much hype around the 27-year-old Venezuelan conductor that you may well have had reason to wonder. But Dudamel is the real thing -- as Virginia, and Washington, got to see when he led the Israel Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, on Tuesday night.

Dudamel is a wild child of music. The advance billing portrays him as a natural talent brimming over with musical understanding untrammeled by a big ego, and onstage, that's just about what you get. The cushion of springy curls bobbing over the emphatic movements of his arms as he gestures and leaps and exhorts certainly project a state-of-nature exuberance.

But engaging though all this be, the really good news is that he goes beyond it. On Tuesday, for all the rough edges -- and there are rough edges -- he conducted with tremendous emotional specificity. He brought to the music an eye for detail that may have overlooked technical niceties, but could find strikingly nuanced things to do with a single phrase: pausing for a microsecond to give a percussive chord an element of surprise, or unleashing the orchestra's forces only to pull them back again to round out a musical statement with unexpected elegance.

The programming was a little unusual. If you want to show off your young, charismatic conductor, two back-to-back 19th-century German symphonies with similar orchestrations -- Mendelssohn's "Italian" and Brahms's Fourth -- are not necessarily the most obvious choices. Naturally, you want to demonstrate that Dudamel has the chops to deal with demanding music (he does). Presumably, WPAS -- or whoever selected this program from what the orchestra is offering on its current tour -- also wanted to enhance the contrast with Dudamel's second appearance this season, scheduled for April, when he returns with his own Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. That program will feature Ravel, Stravinsky and some of the Latin American works that have become staples of that orchestra's concerts.

Of course, the two symphonies offer a considerable contrast in mood: the Mendelssohn, sunny and lilting; the Brahms, the pinnacle of his orchestral achievement. Dudamel drew links between them, reflecting Mendelssohn's sunniness in a light touch in the Brahms, and exploring the subtleties of Mendelssohn's orchestral writing rather than being satisfied with merely making it sing.

Dudamel is an instinctive conductor. He did not come to these pieces determined to bend them to an interpretation or make a statement. What came through most was his sense of wonder as he shaped each movement without benefit of a score, not with a strong sense of the pieces' architecture but with a strong sense of their musicality. Each movement of the Mendelssohn was clearly differentiated, from the bouncy opening to the spidery tarantella of the finale. The orchestra rose to meet him, its sound warm yet springy, with a Central European coloring freshened by a feeling of air and light.

It takes a lot of energy to carry a piece like the Brahms Fourth on instinct alone, and Dudamel poured every ounce of himself into the execution of it, even leaping from the podium at one point, like a more athletic Leonard Bernstein. Yet the best things about his Brahms -- which kept Beethoven in sight at every turn -- were the moments of restraint: such as the way he created air around the horn call in the first movement, so it emerged from a place of essential stillness. Or the way he charged full tilt at the end of the first movement and then at the last second suddenly tucked in the very end of the chord, so that instead of the expected explosive finale came a full stop, transmitting the clear message that this was a pause in a piece that was moving on. For once, not a single member of the audience clapped in the wrong place. The climax was reserved for the towering fourth movement in an appropriately wrenching performance.

It was left to the first encore to offer a new musical direction: the intermezzo from Puccini's "Manon Lescaut," full of wonderful schmaltz and with some truly gorgeous playing from the principal cello, violin and viola. Dudamel appears to deal with the hype by trying to spread the praise to his players. He did not even take a solo bow, but stood, instead, among the orchestra to receive what by now has become his expected due of thunderous applause.