Dudamel Destroys Beethoven in Rome

ItalyItaly  Beethoven, Ravel, Stravinsky: Orquesta Sinfonica di Venezuela Simon Bolivar, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Rome, 23.11.2011 (JB)

Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 Eroica
Ravel:Daphnis et Chloé second suite
Stravinsky:Firebird Suite Op. 20 (1919 version)

Nietzsche is said to have come out of Tristan gasping for breath. You can see his point. Wagner has a charming trick – original at the time – of starting a new phrase in the final bars of the preceding phrase. These overlaps give the effect of a phrase starting at seven o’clock and ending at around midnight. Separate but cemented together, so to speak. It’s the cement that got at Nietzsche’s lungs.

A perfect antidote for the philosopher would be to send him to a concert “conducted” by Gustavo Dudamel. Not only does Dudamel not cement one phrase to the next. He has done away with the very idea of phrase. A kind of sorcerer’s apprentice in reverse. Whereas the music ran away with the original sorcerer (a highly risky but not impossible approach in the right hands), here it is Dudamel himself who runs off with the music. Or better, by aggressively applying his axe, chops his way through the music whenever there is even the merest hint of a phrase threatening to show its shape.

All this might have been fun in a fifteen year old conductor, but Gustavo Dudamel is thirty, and still partying like a teenager. Disrespect is not without its charm in those growing up. But it is tiresome in adults.

Beethoven suffered most from this onslaught. I was fascinated to hear that you can machine-gun Ravel and some music will still come through. But I shall come to Ravel in a minute.

The funeral march of the Eroica symphony is very hard to bring off under even the most sensitive batons. The conductor has to find a way of holding the long Adagio assai (extremely slowly) together. No place for teenage partying. Gusty Dudy chops his way through the phrasing indications which Beethoven has so thoughtfully provided. Can this be an attempt at musical humour in a humourless score?

The axe was also out for the other three movements (Allegro con brio, Allegro vivace and Allegro molto) and while all elegance and musical architecture are recklessly dispatched to the devil, in these movements the wreckage was somehow less offensive.

Make no mistake: the Simon Bolivar orchestra is made up of the most excellent players, all under the age of twenty-seven. It grows out of a junior orchestra which in turn recruits from a supremely well-run state music education system which at any one moment has a quarter of a million very young players in training. Their conductor loves nothing better than highlighting this excellence. And it is indeed a model for the rest of the world and something to rejoice in. But I fancy that another conductor could also do a great deal more. All the same, the players appear to love their conductor. They give themselves to him entirely. All praiseworthy.

Both the pieces of the second part call for special effects. Effects are something with which both the conductor and the orchestra do very well indeed. I was surprised to hear how well that familiar transparency of harmony and timbres works in Ravel even if (as here) you disregard his phrasing. In a word, Dudamel understands the vertical balances of this music but not the horizontal requirements.

But ignore Stravinsky’s phrasing at your peril. These phrases are unusual, eccentric even, but they require the detailed attention more familiarly seen as necessary in Mozart. They also enjoy elements of fun. And that is something Mr Dudamel understands. And conveys.

There was an encore: the overture to La Forza del Destino. For which the axe was out again. Accents were fired across the music like a canon, not called for by Verdi and all powerfully destructive. None of the soaring phrases were allowed to do just that: soar. Dear Gusty, will you please sit down and listen to a record of Montserrat Caballé singing Leonora’s great aria. She will show you where the music breathes, which is to say, how it makes musical sense.

A blackout followed the Forza fiasco. When the lights came up, the young players had shed their jackets and donned plastic anoraks with the Venezuela flag and colours. A couple of rags followed, during the performance of which they threw their instruments in the air, stood up, sat down, continued playing and finally flung the anoraks out into the audience. What fun! All together now! I liked this. But sadly, I have to report that it was the best bit of the evening.

Jack Buckley