Review: Dudamel Leads the Stellar Vienna Philharmonic With Humble Authority at Carnegie
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, February 27, 2018
Sunday’s appearance at Carnegie Hall by the venerated Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel provided art and artistry of numerous contrasts. First, the pairing of this great European ensemble, an institution with roots reaching back into the annals of Western classical music itself, and one of the New World’s hottest stars, the 37 year old Venezuelan Dudamel. Appointed music director of of Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 26, Dudamel hasn’t appeared much in New York, so audiences were undoubtedly curious to see him conduct.
Based upon his presence on video, and his partial depiction by Gael Garcia Bernal in Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, I had the impression that he was something of a showman. But, this proved to be a false assumption. He seemed, on Sunday at least, humble and well-studied, with a deceptively light touch on the podium, frequently staying out of the way of the instrumentalists.
The program juxtaposed two wildly different symphonies, from two very different composers: the American maverick Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2, a busy collage of sound with an air of nineteenth-century New England nostalgia, and famous depressive Tchaikovsky’s despairing fourth symphony, written in the wake of a failed marriage. Both pieces have moments of great visceral thrust balanced with moments of quiet repose, and the orchestra, which plays with the fellowship of a much smaller group, shone in both. Especially shiny was their glaringly bright timbre (maybe partly due to the lower frequency to which European orchestras are tuned), flattering to the extraordinarily energetic string section, impressive in the dazzling brass section, and, at times, jarring in the uneven woodwinds.
In more leaden hands, Ives’s dense, puzzling panoply of American folk-like tunes (the list of actual folk songs, such as “Turkey in the Straw,” suggested in the piece is extensive) would probably confuse more than anything else, but Dudamel guides the cacophony with a keen sense of forward purpose and focus. The third movement, a a bittersweet Adagio cantabile, was the highlight, with some characterful solo playing by the cello and horn.
The piece is best remembered for its mockingly sour final note, a “Bronx cheer” of a button, an accented, dissonant eighth note containing all eleven of the twelve tones except the tonic pitch.
According to Wikipedia, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the symphony’s belated premiere, here in Carnegie Hall in 1951, he was criticized for elongating it to a half-note, but the interpretive gesture seems to have stuck: Dudamel did the same thing in this performance. It’s a hammy choice.
Vienna’s powerful brass section, especially the virtuosic horn section, shook Carnegie Hall to the rafters in Tchaikovsky’s F minor symphony, which begins with a call to arms of epic proportions. The piece does not remain stuck in the first movement’s grave disillusionment, instead, it works through the composer’s emotional state like a therapist. A glimmer of hope greets the melodious second movement, led by some expressive solo playing in the oboe, cello, and bassoon. Dudamel knows where to lend emphasis, and brings out the deliciousness in Tchaikovsky’s harmonies.
The strings exhibited adept cohesion in the treacherous onslaught of pizzicato in the Scherzo. Here especially, Dudamel lets go, trusting the Philharmonic’s unique sense of the larger pulse. It’s essential to keeping this challenging pizzicato texture together, but it’s a quality the Vienna Phil demonstrates in everything, most demonstrably in Sunday’s encore, a waltz from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. The ebbing and flowing of the waltz tempo, matched with delicacy by the shimmering triangle in the percussion, was infectious.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on February 25, 2018. Gustavo Dudamel, conductor.
IVES Symphony No. 2
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4
Cover: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo: Chris Lee.