Whirlwind hits Lake Lucerne: Dudamel and Los Angeles Phil.

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Vivier, Debussy and Stravinsky: Lucerne Festival Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne 21.3.13

Vivier: Zipangu for 13 strings
Debussy: La Mer
Stravinsky: Firebird

Dudamel (c)Mathew Imaging
Dudamel (c)Mathew Imaging

The Los Angeles Philharmonic came to the Lucerne Easter Festival with two very different programmes. First, John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary”, which sadly I could not attend. I did however manage to attend their second concert, containing more conventional fare.

The opening work was, I must admit, by a composer of whom I had never heard, Claude Vivier. The programme note and some research revealed that most interest centres less on his musical output than on the manner of his death. Vivier was born in 1948. On the night of 8th March 1983, the 35-year-old French-Canadian composer was stabbed to death in his Paris flat. His killer was a male prostitute whom Vivier had met in a bar earlier that evening. On the worktable was the manuscript of Vivier’s final, uncompleted work, “Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele?” (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?), a monologue in which Vivier describes a journey on the metro during which he becomes attracted to a young man. The music breaks off abruptly following the line: “Then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart.”

The Vivier work performed was not that unfinished monologue but a piece for thirteen strings entitled “Zipangu” which turns out to be the name given to Japan by Marco Polo. The music did not evoke the Orient but rather Scotland with its bagpipe-like droning bass and superimposed high strings. It reminded me of Tippett’s “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme by Corelli,” as it might have been arranged by Stockhausen. There were fascinating and eerie sounds from the very top of the violins’ E strings; the piece was neither unpleasant, discordant nor boring and one could see why some think that Vivier’s early death may have been a loss to the contemporary music world.

Dudamel’s interpretation of “La Mer” was uninspired, though the colour and texture of the score came through with great transparency with the aid of the Lucerne hall’s splendid acoustics (same acoustic engineers as at Birmingham Symphony Hall). The brass were resplendent throughout. Dudamel was more impressive with the livelier sections than in the diaphanous impressionistic passages. Although the piece was written in Eastbourne, this was more Santa Monica than Le Touquet; the sunlight was evoked more brilliantly than the grey mists. However the start to the third section was most menacing, like an approaching tsunami and the final bars, very well rehearsed, brought the work to an end with a resounding thump.

The problem with performing the complete “Firebird” ballet score, rather than any one of the three suites which Stravinsky later prepared (for commercial reasons), is that some of the music is designed very much with Diaghilev’s ballet in mind, and without the sight of dancers on stage, the music feels at times rather disjointed, with little melodic content. However the big tunes, when they come, never fail to impress and the orchestra put on a fine show. The audience held its breath as the menace of the final section, taken fast, unfurled, the brass were magnificently raucous and secure; the gentle section before the very end was wistful before Dudamel – stressing the work’s modernity whenever possible – brought the work to its blazing climax, bringing the two offstage trumpets onto a high balcony to add to the volume of the brass.

The orchestra impressed throughout and received a deserved standing ovation; the principal cellist, Robert deMaine, stood out whenever he played, in all three of the evening’s works. That only leaves me to comment on Dudamel who remains, for me, a maestro-in-the-making in core repertoire. One does have to remember his origins and that he is still only 32 years old, and has reached a level which most conductors could only dream about in middle age. Youngsters in the audience (precious few in Lucerne, given the seat prices) will be drawn to his showman-like style. Nevertheless when not mambo-ing with his young Venezuelans or wallowing in the emotions of Mahler symphonies, he still seems to be a learning curve.

John Rhodes