At the age of 31, Gustavo Dudamel has made quite a splash in the refined world of conducting. In 1999 (still a teen!) he became the music director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. From there he’s gone on to win numerous awards and is now also head of the Gothenburg Symphony and followed in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s footsteps as the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic . As part of his meteoric rise, he makes guest-conductor appearances all over the world, including stopping by the Berlin Philharmonic.
And yes – it’s not just hype. This guy understands music.
Maurice Ravel’s symphonic five-part Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) is a tricky opening number. In the delicate notes of Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane for sleeping beauty), the orchestra has some initial trouble meshing, but all is soon forgiven: the intertwining melodies are crystal clear, everything transparently delicious like dew-covered spider webs sparkling in a rosy morning.
One might have feared that Dudamel would apply a grossly romantic and over-the-top bombastic style after listening to Youtube-clips of his interpretations of Bernstein’s Mambo and West Side Story (for those pieces it works, but for Ravel? No!), but he held the orchestra gently and firmly in his baton-equipped hand, never losing his graceful grip on the musicians, even – impressively – without the sheet music. During the finale, the Le Jardin féerique (The fairy garden), I got instant goosebumps. When Dudamel let down his arms, I heard an almost inaudible ‘wow’ to my left. Mother Goose may never have made more sense.
Dudamel is a small man – standing on his podium he’s barely as tall as the soloist of the evening: Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, an impressive virtuoso on his instrument, playing Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin concerto op. 35 with an abundance of joy. The Romantic Korngold’s works are thankfully experiencing a revival, and the Hollywood Technicolor film composer (the Errol Flynn Robin Hood for example) had a knack for big, beautiful scores. Dudamel manages to avoid sticky romantic clichés in the music-style, and makes it fresh and light, dodging the significant risk of mucking it up in a brass-mess. The various soloists in the orchestra excel, and concert master David Strabrawa and Leonidas Kavakos duets are stunningly beautiful.
Full frontal finale
Dudamel pulls out the big guns for Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra – instantly recognizable from the initial scene in 2001: A Space Odessey. Double basses, contrabassoons and the massive organ accumulate to an impressive crescendo, (to which Strauss wrote Sunrise in his program notes), blowing you back in your seat with its sheer volume. Once again Dudamel conducts without sheet music, and he dances and swirls in an energetic display of the late Romantic period music, the orchestra following his every move, no matter how imperceptible some of them may seem.
Dudamel is an excellent storyteller. He knows how to use the tools at his disposal, never settling for cheesy effects, and spreading energy through his musicians to the audience.
If you don’t have the chance to see him live, be sure to check out Berlin Philharmonic online for real-time streaming of the concerts, proving that that the conductor and company are not only moving and expressive but modern, too.