Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Gil, the Phil, and Dudamel: Young Virtuosos Rock Avery Fisher

Last night I sat at the feet of two musicians who belie the idea that musical maturity is a function of age. Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezualan wunderkind, is 26, possibly going on 25. Although Gil Shaham is 36 now, he has been an artist of penetrating musicianship since at least Dudamel's age. The two were genuinely enjoying each other in a way that is hardly ever seen in the concert hall, and that enthusiasm permeated Avery Fisher; it was as if the whole place was filled with a vapor that made everyone giddy in the execution of classical masterworks. The two smiled, grinned, and all but laughed with each other throughout the performance, and none of it seemed staged, except in the best sense.

I may have been even more infected than others, sitting in the first row, a few seats to the right of Shaham. It is close to where I sat six years ago when I heard him play the Brahms Concerto, with Neeme Järvi conducting. Although it was only 2001, I went there expecting the Brahms performance of the century. I got it, of course - whether the rest of the century will prove me right remains to be seen. I went to last night's concert with just as high expectations, but with a difference. I had heard Elmar Oliveira play the Dvorak Concerto with the Philharmonic some 15 years ago (Leonard Slatkin conducted), and though he may rank slightly below Shaham in my contemporary violin pantheon, he is nevertheless a consummate musician and brilliant fiddler who never delivers anything less than an exquisite performance. So there was a standard to live up to here, both technically and musically.

I am happy to report that Shaham was more than equal to the task. It was not just the energy that the two youngsters brought to the Dvorak, or the terrific chemistry between them. Anthony Tommasini's summation of "lustrous tone, brilliant technique and sweeping energy" is accurate, but misses the true greatness of this performance. I know this concerto intimately, not only from numerous recordings (the epitome being David Oistrakh's definitive version) but from having played through the concerto myself many times, and studied parts of it. What Shaham brought to this piece was the ability to put a distinctive and convincing shape on every phrase, no matter how apparently insignificant; he brought out melodies, accents and phrasing that no one, including Oistrakh, seems to have realized were possible. Heifetz, and to my knowledge most other golden age violinists, never recorded this piece, and probably never toured with it. I don't know why, given its ravishing beauty and opportunity for virtuosity; perhaps they objected to Joachim's endless meddling with the part, leaving it a somewhat compromised instance of a Dvorak composition. Apart from Oistrakh there is a great recording by Milstein; but most of the attention has come from younger performers in the last 25 years or so. Without diminishing these other recent efforts (not to mention an impressive older one by Oistrakh student Viktor Pikaizen) Shaham's performance was an interpretation in every sense of the word, a musically controlled and suggestive reading that will stand (once it is, presumably, recorded) as monument on a fairly flat plain.

Apart from the power of his phrasing, his tone varied constantly - a controlled vibrato not only in quiet passages but wherever he deemed it appropriate, sliding effortlessly into a chain vibrato through the most romantic sections, and back again. I would rather call his overall tone velvety than "lustrous": his bow, which he seems to keep very tight (the stick looked almost straight to me from certain angles, though I suppose it wasn't quite) slides like mercury across the strings, never giving a hint of the least contest between the two. (And yes, he does use a shoulder pad, the kind that lies across the back of the fiddle attached by grips on either side - for those violinists out there who wonder about such things.)

A human being is not a machine, and if someone wants to point out an octave that was not quite perfect or a note slightly out of tune, they may do so. But there were many arpeggios executed with the brilliance of a Heifetz, including the melismas at the end of the opening phrases, which Shaham did not try to contour very much but rather treated as flourishes. If I disagreed with anything in his interpretation it might be that, but what he did was effective in that it moved quickly to the more important parts of the score. And the very difficult last movement, which require incredibly precise intonation in the delicately orchestrated main theme, was carried off with masterful left and right hand technique.

One thing that bothers me a little about Shaham, and I think it was the same with the Brahms performance, is that in the more technical passages he tends to hover near the conductor, in such a position that very few can actually see him execute his runs. While it speaks well for modesty, and perhaps more to the point, ensemble, it deprives the spectators of being witness to a technique as formidable as any modern violinist can offer. The Dvorak in particular has no cadenza, so there was precious little opportunity to witness his mastery of left hand pyrotechnics. He may have his reasons, and it is surely unfair to ask any musician of his depth to show off mere technical prowess for its own sake. In any case, the technical power of his playing came through, at least from the first row, aurally if not always visually.

I arrived a little late and missed Dudamel's performance of Chavez's Symphonia India, though one can now not only hear it through speakers but watch it on two large television screens. The piece is a bit frenetic for my taste, but certainly an interesting spectacle, and brilliantly orchestrated. What I heard and saw suggested a performance that brought out the best in the work.

The war horse, both literally and figuratively, last night, was Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Written near the end of the War, after the unbelievable devastation and hardship wrought by Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, but also after the decisive defeat of the invading forces and at a time when Russia and socialism seemed victorious and ready to rebuild, this piece has an unsettled, propulsive force that carries through almost from beginning to end. Dudamel, conducting this complex, 43-minute work without a score, practically leaped off the podium in his drive to wring every ounce of excitement from the piece. The orchestra responded with a technically brilliant and dynamically charged performance, which featured at one time or other nearly every section and instrument, often in counterpoint that was meticulously navigated by both conductor and players. I have seen some recent examples of this sort of urgency with the Philharmonic - Kurt Masur's performances of Ravel's La Valse and Bruckner's Third Symphony come to mind - but never have I seen it carried off with quite such consistent a sense of sonic energy combined with near-perfect ensemble. Percussion and brass were particularly tight, and the very challenging string parts betrayed hardly a flaw (and I was sitting a few feet from the center of the first violin section).

Anyone who says that Dudamel cannot build a climax needs to have their head examined. On the other hand, as Tommasini points out in his review, there is a point at which the bottomless pit of energy takes something away from overall architecture. If Dudamel's youthfulness shows anywhere it is here. One could surely have asked for more nuances in turning on the heat, a more measured buildup in the second movement, for example. But It is all too easy to miss the mark this way. I have heard this happen too; Masur's version of Bruckner's Fourth struck me as way too careful. Dudamel clearly understands that classical music can strike potential new audiences as simply boring, and is fighting like hell to show that it rocks. Good for him; perhaps an audience, once brought to the table, can be trained to adjust its sensibilities and appreciate subtlety as well as excitement. Meanwhile, he delivers plenty of the latter, and at least in the more pensive third movement, quite a lot of the former too.

Comparisons with the young Leonard Bernstein are obvious, and fairly apt; Dudamel literally dances to the music. The power of his conducting style perhaps comes from the fact that he uses not just a baton but every part of his body to signal to the orchestra. If some conductors make you wish you could find a beat somewhere, this one conveys it with baton, left hand, head, chest, hair, face and feet - these parts often moving in different ways to signal different entrances or aspects of the music. To anyone who has not seen him, I recommend you shell out at least once for a front orchestra seat. (Okay, I didn't - I bought a rear one because it was all they had left, and moved into an empty seat in the first row. But don't count on doing that!)

One sad note: apparently Dudamel received the privilege of using one of three batons of Bernstein's for his NY Phil debut. Such was the vigor of this maestro that near the very end of Tuesday's performance (the fourth in six days) the baton cracked, sending a large splinter out into the audience. Dudamel finished the piece with a four-inch stick in his hand. Though the music hardly suffered, history suffered.
I suppose it can be repaired, since audience members kindly passed the broken end up to the stage at the end; reminding one of a story I heard about Casals, whose cello bow once flew out into the audience, and was carefully passed forwards row by row, as he sat bowless and mortified on stage. Great chance to practice your pizzicato...) The Philharmonic Society should not be upset, though. Perhaps this was part of the magic of generational change, like Harry Potter's wand. Though the object is gone the spirit of Dumbledore has clearly passed to a new generation, much to everyone's benefit.