By Don Heckman
There wasn’t any doubt about the source of the star power at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, as always, was generating a powerful glow. So, too, did pianist Gabriela Montero in her relatively brief appearance. And there’s no denying the irresistibility of a program of music by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
Granting all that, however, the clear focus of attention for the full house crowd was unquestionably the dynamic figure of Gustavo Dudamel. And if there was any doubt his presence was the primary factor that had drawn 14,000 or so enthusiastic listeners to the Bowl on a week night, it was quickly driven away by the almost non-stop presence of Dudamel’s image on the venue’s huge video screens. Aside from a few panoramic views of the Philharmonic with Dudamel in the center, the first memorable close up of one of the players didn’t occur until clarinetist Michelle Zukovsky played the opening glissando of the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue.
Okay, nothing surprising about that. Franz Liszt once said “The principal task of a conductor is not to put himself in evidence but to disappear behind his functions as much as possible.” But few have believed or followed that recommendation since Liszt’s departure in 1886. The simple fact is that a conductor’s charismatic visual appeal draws a lot more audience attention than the subtleties between a superb or a pedestrian orchestral performance.
Nonetheless, charismatic conductors have also produced memorable music. And Dudamel appears to be on a track, for the past week, to demonstrate an ability to do precisely that, and to do so in a broad array of styles. Despite an occasional detour. On Sunday, he conducted a staged performance of Carmen. Tuesday it was the music of Gershwin and Bernstein. On Thursday he’ll turn to the music of Ravel, de Falla, Villa-Lobos and more Bernstein.
The Bernstein pieces – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Three Dance Episodes from On The Town – should have been right over the plate for Dudamel, given the frequency with which his conducting style is compared to Bernstein’s. But both the style and the substance seemed more disparate than similar. Dudamel’s buoyancy on the podium has its charm, but it seemed completely absent the inner fire that lit up Bernstein’s irresistible connection with his players. The result was music that hit the right notes without always finding the heart of these passionate scores.
The Gershwin works – Rhapsody in Blue, with pianist Gabriela Montero, and An American In Paris surfaced similarly. Once again everything was in the right place, but Dudamel’s busy gyrations produced little more than efficient musical renderings. Montero, who also demonstrated her remarkable improvisational abilities in a pair of solo encores, triggered some sparks in the Rhapsody. But it was Gershwin’s artful orchestration, rich with 20th century Impressionistic touches, that brought American in Paris to life. That, despite the fact that here, as in the Bernstein pieces – especially West Side Story’s Mambo – Dudamel couldn’t quite seem to effectively synchronize the rhythmic lift that is so vital to the music of both composers.
The audience response, however, fully affirmed the magnitude of the stellar halo that encircles everything Dudamel does. And there’s no doubt that he is an extraordinary talent. His creative versatility, however, was stretched a bit thin for the Bernstein/Gershwin program. Perhaps it’s time for the Hollywood Bowl’s video director to start keeping things in context by allocating more face time for the many other gifted artists in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.