La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar rock Toronto opera house

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh 

It was good to be Venezuelan at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts last night. If you weren't, you certainly secretly wished you were. Just look at Toronto Mayor David Miller. He went off script on stage flaunting about marrying a Venezuelan and was cheered and applauded for it. 

The fuss? The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Led by 28-year-old dynamo Gustavo Dudamel, the 250-strong ensemble made their Canadian debut during the Glenn Gould Prize Gala, where Dr. José Antonio Abreu — the Venezuelan economist and amateur musician who made all this fuss possible in the first place — received the prestigious triennial prize.

Abreu, who entered the stage to a standing ovation at the Four Seasons Centre, founded the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, commonly known as El Sistema, in 1975. The system involves some 250,000 students across Venezuela and has been credited with improving the lives of young people who might otherwise have been drawn into crime, gangs, and drug abuse.

Instead of accepting the $50,000 award that comes with the Glenn Gould Prize, Abreu chose to turn it into musical instruments for his kids in Venezuela. The Glenn Gould Foundation then went to Yamaha, which turned the money into $150,000 worth of instruments. Abreu is receiving the instruments in Toronto today.

With the Simón Bolívar as its flagship, El Sistema has become one of the finest examples of music education admired and studied around the world. And Dudamel, who has led the orchestra since 1999, was selected by Abreu as the recipient of the $15,000 City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize.

The young conductor recently began his much-hyped tenure as music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Last night, before he and the orchestra even played one note, Dudamel was greeted zealously by Toronto's music and Latino communities, some brought with them large Venezuelan flags.

The Simón Bolívar treated a near full house to a program of Latin-American works and Tchaickovsky's Symphony No. 4, Op. 36 in F minor. It was clear within the first couple minutes of their playing why this orchestra has won audiences of all kinds wherever they go.

Whether it's the seductive Silvestre Revueltas' Sensemaya, the monstrous Tchaikovsky, or the saucy Mambo from Bernstein's West Side Story (one of two encores), the players — ages 12-26 — followed the lead of their maestro and were in synch with Dudamel's every signal, be it as minute as a jerk of a shoulder in the pizzicato movement of the Tchaikovsky.

Every musician, regardless where they are seated, played their instrument as if hugging and dancing with it. The orchestra swayed musically in a sea of wave accented by their spotlighted white cuffs. 

Dudamel, who conducted the entire program from memory, was an exciting wild thing to watch. A wrist toss here, a hand punch there — never did a conductor's back look so intriguing from the back of a hall.

The audience erupted into a roaring standing ovation before the last note was finished. After two encores, they wanted more. The applause went on for about 10 minutes, with people shouting "bravo" and "encore" from Ring 4 and 5.

The night ended with Dudamel hand-signing he's hungry and tired and the musicians waving their instruments good-bye on stage. The audience was left mumbling "bravo" all the more on their way out.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

This Week in Toronto (October 26 - November 1)

Photo: Gustavo Dudamel

Toronto music lovers can look forward to a number of high profile events this week. Top on the list is the appearance of conducting phenom Gustavo Dudamel leading the Simon Bolivar Youth Orhcestra. He is in town to receive the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protege Prize, selected by his mentor, Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, who is the Eighth Glenn Gould Prize Laureate. Dudamel conducts the concert this Monday evening at the Four Seasons Centre. Tickets have been on sale for some time, and they are expensive. However, I just heard that rush tickets are available in person at 5 pm this afternoon (Monday) at the FSC box office. Unfortunately I am not able to find out the exact price of the rush tickets, however you can be sure it is going to be much cheaper than the current cheapest ticket at $155. This young maestro from Venezuela is the hottest thing around in the conducting world and well worth experiencing. Below is from a press release of the Glenn Gould Foundation publicizing Dudamel as recipient of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protege Prize:

The Eighth Glenn Gould Prize Laureate, Dr. José Antonio Abreu, has selected Venezuelan Conductor Gustavo Dudamel as winner of the prestigious The City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize.

Maestro Dudamel, a native of Barquisimeto, Venezuela will receive a cash award of $15,000 from the City of Toronto as he joins an illustrious group of exceptional young musicians who have received this triennial honour. Previous Protégé winners are Roman Patkoló (2005); Jean-Guihen Queyras (2002); Wu Man (1999); Tan Dun (1996), and Benny Green (1993).

Hailed as one of the most exciting and compelling conductors of our time, the 28-year old Maestro Dudamel will begin his tenure as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in fall 2009. Recently named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2009, Maestro Dudamel continues as Music Director of the Gothenburg Symphony. Perhaps best known as Music Director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, his infectious energy and exceptional artistry have made him one of the most sought-after conductors by orchestras around the world.

This week also marks the opening of Opera Atelier's Iphigenie en Tauride, in a production premiered in 2003. A marvelous baroque gem, this Gluck masterpiece require great singing actors. OA's audience favourite Peggy Kriha-Dye returns in the title role, and Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer, who made a huge impression as Idomeneo two seasons ago, sings Orest. This is a must-see for opera lovers. The show opens on Saturday, Oct. 31 7:30 pm at the Elgin Theatre. Go to for a video clip of the production, introduced by co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski.

The COC continues with its long run of Madama Butterfly, with performances on Oct. 27, 29, and 31. Its production of Stravinsky's The Nightingale and Other Short Fables continues on Oct. 30. This show so wowed the critics and audiences that an extra performance was added on Monday, November 2. I am sure it is close to selling out, so if you want to experience opera at its most innovative, don't miss out!

Music Toronto is presenting piano virtuoso Simon Trpceski on October 27, 8 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre. Trpceski was here just three years ago, also under the auspices of Music Toronto. I attended that show and can say he is a truly scintillating performer. On the program this time is Haydn, Mozart, and Chopin. Also on the program is a piece new to me, by Shavov, called Songs and Whispers.

Finally, to celebrate Halloween, North Toronto Institute of Music is presenting a "Monster Concert" at Massey Hall on October 31, at a rather strange time of 3 pm. According to the publicity material, "Monster Concerts" began in the 1830s by the composer Czerny to raise funds for flood victims of the Danube. The concerts featured a large number of grand pianos on stage (usually 10), with 2 players at each, and a conductor. This style of concert was later made popular in the United States by the pianist Gottschalk, and later Eugene List. This concert will feature a program of popular works by Gottschalk, Rossini, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Bizet, performed as solos, duets, and ensembles of 20 or 30 performers. It sounds like fun!

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic: A New Era Begins!

by Paul E. Robinson

It seems like yesterday that Esa-Pekka Salonen announced he was stepping down as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to be succeeded by the young Venezuelan phenomenon Gustavo Dudamel. In fact, it was two years ago, in April, 2007.

This month, Dudamel conducted his inaugural concert as music director of the LA Phil and a few nights ago, PBS broadcast the historic event to viewers around the country. On the whole, it was an excellent concert and gave the country a good look at the charismatic Dudamel.

Will Dudamel’s Appointment Build Hispanic Audience Base?

It was a stroke of genius by someone (Salonen? LA Philharmonic executive director Deborah Borda?) to grab Dudamel for LA; the city is more than half Hispanic and Latino and if the orchestra is to flourish in the 21st century, it will have to connect with that community.

In his work with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Dudamel has demonstrated a rare gift for making music and for making music meaningful and exciting to Spanish-speaking listeners.

I had expected that Dudamel’s opening concert in LA would reach out to the Latino community in a big way. Surprisingly, this side of Dudamel was conspicuous by its absence. Instead, we got the premiere of a new piece by John Adams and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

PBS had hired Andy Garcia as host for the broadcast. Hollywood celebrities Tom Hanks, Quincy Jones, Sidney Poitier and others were in the audience, but few recognizable stars from LA’s Latino community were caught by the camera. Very odd.

City Noir Could Have/Should Have Been Better

For the occasion, the LA Philharmonic commissioned a major new piece from one of the best-known and most respected American composers, John Adams.

Adams’ City Noir is a 35-minute symphonic suite inspired by Los Angeles generally and by Hollywood film noir of the 1940s specifically. Adams also alluded to the influence of the 1950s television series Naked City in remarks included in the broadcast.

Adams talks a good game, but all too often his music is disappointing – at least to me. City Noir was no exception. Last year, I sat impatiently through the pretentious Adams opera Doctor Atomic at the Met. City Noir proved to be just as much of an ordeal.

Other composers might have borrowed from the film scores of Bernard Hermann, for example, as a point of departure. They might have tapped into the work of all the great composers who have chosen to live in LA over the years – Stravinsky and Schoenberg being the most notable. Given the demographics of LA and the fact that it was Dudamel’s debut concert as music director, surely some celebration of Latino music would have been in order. Instead, we got endless impressionistic noodling and flat-footed uninspired rhythms. Finally, at the very end of the piece, the Latin percussion was brought into play, contributing to what sounded like an inferior rendering of the end of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.

Either Adams has no comprehension of the essence of Latino music, or he deliberately neutered it in favour of some kind of abstract and distorted version of it. Dudamel appeared to conduct City Noir with great efficiency but then any number of conductors could have delivered the same level of competence. The piece was a huge disappointment and a great missed opportunity to say something relevant to the occasion. Many patrons may well have hit the bar at intermission wondering what all the Dudamel fuss was about. Fortunately, the best part of the evening was yet to come.

Dudamel’s Mahler Personal and Persuasive

Only 28-years old, Dudamel already has a long history with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. He says it is the first piece he studied with his mentor José Antonio Abreu, the legendary founder of the ground-breaking El Sistema in Venezuela, and he has conducted it with leading orchestras around the world.

In this performance, Dudamel had the players in the LA Philharmonic on the edge of their seats and many in the audience too. But while he has a well-earned reputation for generating excitement, Dudamel’s Mahler was also well nuanced. I was greatly impressed with the maturity of his approach. even if I didn’t always agree with his decisions about tempo and phrasing. But there was no doubt about it. He had a point a view about the piece and it was consistently engrossing. His phrasing was often personal, but it was never self-indulgent or tasteless. He reveled in the sounds of nature that Mahler incorporated in the first movement, but treated them with subtlety and with a fine ear for balances.

The beginning of the second movement was the most controversial feature of Dudamel’s interpretation of the Mahler First. He took the first four bars very slowly, with heavy emphasis, before moving into a quicker tempo. I don’t know where he got this idea – there is no marking in the score to justify it – but I have to say that it made this quirky dance movement even more fun than usual.

To my ears, the last movement is too long and repetitious in almost anyone’s performance, but Dudamel kept it going and with some tremendous playing from the horn section, got just about all the excitement one could ask for.

Disney Hall Acoustics Well Served by PBS Broadcast

Earlier this year, I was in the Disney Concert Hall for one of Salonen’s last concerts and it was a wonderful experience. Salonen is an outstanding composer-conductor and the hall is excellent. A broadcast, even in HD, is not the same as being there, but some of the acoustical splendor of Disney came through nonetheless.

I was particularly struck by the sound of the bass drum. Even the soft notes had a wonderful resonance. On the other hand, the big climaxes never registered properly. But that was not the fault of the hall; it is an old problem with television sound. The limiters on the transmitter make sure that nothing is too loud or too soft. But this concert was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and I am sure the DVD will sound a lot better.

LA Phil – Give Us the Dudamel We Know!

I mentioned at the outset that Dudamel was an inspired choice to lead the LA Philharmonic because of his Latino roots and their Latino needs. I also said that I found his inaugural concert somewhat disappointing because this Latino theme was totally ignored. Going further, I had the feeling that he had reined in his conducting style for the occasion. There was far less grimacing than we get in even the average Simon Rattle concert, and nothing like the hopping and jumping that made Leonard Bernstein such a popular podium personality. Even the hair seemed to have been cut back to suggest greater maturity.

But it could be that this image tweaking was a deliberate strategy. With the world watching, Dudamel was presented not as a Latino phenomenon. but simply as a fine musician ushering in a new era in Los Angeles. If this was the LA Phil’s goal, the concert was a great success, Dudamel came across as a very serious conductor and was seen to be very much at home in American contemporary music and in the mainstream German repertoire.

But at what cost?

Do we really want a cleaned-up, trimmed down ready for prime time Dudamel? What made him exciting and unique when he first burst on to the scene was his over the top personality on stage and his infectious enthusiasm. It was also the joy of music he conveyed to his young musicians and to audiences everywhere, and the wonderful Latin music he brought with him. For heaven’s sake let Gustavo be Gustavo and we will all be the richer for it, having more fun with music and discovering melodies and rhythms which can make our world a bigger and more interesting place.

Dudamel and Abreu inToronto

Gustavo Dudamel brings his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra to Toronto (Canada) on October 26 for a week of concerts and educational activities. Both Dudamel and Abreu will be presented with prizes by the Glenn Gould Foundation.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 26 (Furtwängler, Dudamel)

1886 - Wilhelm Furtwängler, Berlin, Germany; conductor, composer

"Genius forged in the cauldron of war"

Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in the Overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger (1942)

1981 - Gustavo Dudamel, Barquisimeto, Venezuela; conductor, violinist

Gustavo Dudamel website

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Arturo Márquez's Danzón No. 2 (Promenade Concerts, London, 2007)

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