Dudamel Shows He’s Human, After All

United StatesUnited States John Adams, Vivier, Debussy, Stravinsky: Soloists, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (music director), Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City. 27-28.3.2013 (BH)


John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2011-12, New York premiere)

Kelley O’Connor (Mary)
Tamara Mumford (Martha)
Russell Thomas (Lazarus)
Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley (Narrators)
Michael Schumacher, Anani Sanouvi, Troy Ogilvie (Dancers)
Los Angeles Master Chorale

Grant Gershon, Music Director
Dunya Ramicova, Costume Design
James F. Ingalls, Lighting Design
Mark Grey, Sound Design


Claude Vivier: Zipangu (1980)
Debussy: La mer (1903-1905)
Stravinsky: The Firebird (1909-1910)

So Gustavo Dudamel is human, after all—at least, as shown in this eminently discussable pair of Avery Fisher Hall concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. I’ve now heard Dudamel live almost a dozen times, with the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Israel Philharmonic—and am convinced he is a once-in-a-generation talent. From an imperfect-but-tears-inducing Mahler Fifth with the New York band, to an electrifying Bartók Concerto for Orchestra with the Venezuelans, to the entertaining hijinks with the Vienna ensemble in Ravel and Julian Orbón—the occasions have been at worst memorable, at best transcendent. Dudamel couples musical intelligence with an innate desire to communicate, and still manages to have a charming humility—seemingly maintaining a grounded view of his relatively fast rise to stardom. So all that said, to my ears these two evenings—especially the second one—seemed to ultimately lack some of the electricity of these past outings, despite the fervent audience response to both.

John Adams seems to have turned a compositional corner with The Gospel According to the Other Mary, his eclectic, updated interpretation of the days leading up to Christ’s crucifixion. While the composer’s ostinatos still linger, pleasantly, he has expanded his toolbox—appropriately, given the scale of the piece. Percussion figures prominently, including piquant use of a hammered dulcimer, and there are many bold sequences for the vibrant Los Angeles brass. Adams’s style is primarily tonal, yet not dogmatically so, and every gesture seems intended to flatter the voices; in addition to the large ensemble, Adams uses a chorus, three soloists and a trio of countertenors who serve as narrators.

The texts—by such diverse sources as the Bible, Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen and Rubén Darío—are often wrenching. From Erdrich’s 1989 book of poems, Baptism of Desire, Sellars chooses “Mary Magdalene,” with its angry, sorrowful final lines:

I will drive boys
To smash empty bottles on their brows.
I will pull them right out of their skins.
It is the old way that girls
Get even with their fathers—
By wrecking their bodies on other men.

The composite text Sellars has assembled works beautifully, as a freshly scrubbed take—a 21st-century prism—on a story familiar to many. That said, I continue to find Sellars’s recent directorial efforts baffling at best, annoying at worst. Unlike his groundbreaking set of the three Mozart Da Ponte operas, his current work seems to occlude, rather than clarify. In many places I wanted to close my eyes and let Adams’s score, Dudamel and the musicians do the talking.

As Mary, Kelley O’Connor was luminous, delivering Erdrich’s lines and others with fear, disbelief and wonder—she can’t quite comprehend everything that is happening. Tamara Mumford deployed her luscious mezzo with care and taste; how could one not respond to lines like these (from Dorothy Day in 1942): “We know there will be no utopias, that we will always have the poor. But let those who talk of softness, of sentimentality, come to live with us in cold, unheated houses in the slums.”As Lazarus, Russell Thomas was exciting to watch, and though he tended to over-sing now and then, perhaps trying to rise above the occasional orchestral torrents, in general he acquitted himself with stylish phrasing, commitment and focus.

The three countertenors—Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley—were ghostly, moving around the stage and offering delicate commentary to stitch together the scenes. They sounded as graceful together as they did separately. And the Los Angeles Master Chorale, magnificently directed by Grant Gershon and placed on a platform above the orchestra at the back of the stage, seemed energized by the occasion and offered impassioned singing (and my comments on Sellars notwithstanding, some occasional effective movements, such as the chopping hands at the turbulent opening of Act II). Throughout, Dudamel seemed completely in control of the score’s sorrowful landscape and the huge crowd onstage.

For the second evening, what looked enticing on paper turned out to be somewhat less so in person. I’ve been looking forward to hearing Claude Vivier’s Zipangu live for some time, but its chamber music instrumentation—13 strings—makes it difficult to have much of an impact in this particular venue. And though the string players gave it their all—Vivier uses crunchy chords, harmonics of overtone sequences and well-placed glissandos—the result was curiously anticlimactic, given the restless audience primed to hear the full glory of the Los Angeles visitors. Debussy’s La mer fared better, with moderate speeds and an ensemble pouring out color, and an especially appreciative nod to trumpet principal Thomas Hooten for his rock-steady contributions.

There are probably some listeners for whom Stravinsky’s complete Firebird is a bit like observing a pair of bookends—the ominous opening and the final ten minutes or so—with a lot of gray territory in between. Those people probably wouldn’t have been persuaded by Dudamel’s take, which seemed more episodic than usual—lacking that big arc. (I wonder if his not using a score—fine in general—may occasionally contribute to this problem.) But among the musicians powerful moments were legion, from the outstanding work by flutist Catherine Ransom and principal horn Andrew Bain, to the snarling rasp of Kastchei’s dance, which caused unexpected applause after the orchestra’s gigantic flourish prior to the joyful finale. As on the previous night, the packed house erupted with cheers, bringing Dudamel out for many ovations. (And cadre of young female fans noted.) If the conductor’s rock-star persona results in fresh ears and excitement for classical music, that’s hardly a bad thing.

Bruce Hodges