Thursday, May 3, 2018

Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Beethoven No. 9

On Sunday afternoon, I went to David Geffen Hall to hear the acclaimed conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of works by Bernstein and Beethoven.  The concert was part of the Great Performers at Lincoln Center orchestral series to which I subscribe, and this season has been one of the best in recent memory with performances by several of the world's greatest conductors and symphony orchestras.

The program opened with Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (1965), a work I can't remember ever having heard before.  This was one of those relatively short pieces orchestras customarily program before performing a much longer work where no late seatins is allowed; but it was still a very appropriate choice considering we are approaching the centennial of the composer's birth.  It was definitely one of Bernstein's more interesting works, a serious piece that's also highly accessible and one that draws an emotional response from the audience, even among those who are not particularly religious.  There were several ironies in its composition.  First, though the psalms are obviously Hebrew texts, the work itself was commissioned for a Christian festival in England.  Secondly, the prelate who commissioned it, Rev. Walter Hussey, was not looking for a work that had a purely ecclesiastical character.  He wrote to Bernstein: "Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music." Finally, the work was not after all premiered at Chichester, the venue for which it was written, but at the New York Philharmonic two weeks earlier.  The orchestration is unusual in that no woodwinds are used while two harps are instead featured prominently throughout the work.  Morevover, Bernstein specified that the countertenor part should never be sung by a woman.  At this performance, John Holiday was excellent in the that part.

After intermission, the concert concluded with a performance of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1824).  Beethoven's Ninth is more than just a musical work, of course - it is one of the touchstones of Western culture and one of the greatest expressions of universal brotherhood ever devised.  Jan Swafford, in his monumental biography of the composer, has linked the sentiments contained within it to Beethoven's youthful exposure to the Enlightenment principles then prevalent in Bonn.  Certainly, it is the culmination of all the composer had learned over the years regarding both life and art.  There's a magnificent irony in the fact that this obstreperous morose man who was often so difficult in his private life should choose to celebrate the common thread that binds all men together and to give voice to Schiller's An die Freude when his own life had predominantly been one of loneliness and suffering.

The Ninth has always offered a message of hope and has been criticized by some for its naivete in sounding so simplistic a call to brotherhood.  Nevertheless, at a time when the news is daily filled with accounts of political turmoil and the most basic values of Americans have been called into question, the symphony has more than ever something to offer those of us who are at times brought close to despair by current events.  If nothing else, we are given hope simply by the fact that such a transcendental masterpiece should exist in the first place.  It demonstrates the heights that can be reached by one man, cursed with deafness and nearing death, acting on behalf of us all.  We have to feel that if Beethoven could overcome the obstacles fate had placed in his path then so too can we triumph in the face of horrible adversity.

This was an excellent performance of the Ninth, one that received at its conclusion a standing ovation from the audience.  Mr. Dudamel's conducting was above reproach, but I still prefer the performances I've heard in recent years by the Berliner Philharmoniker with Simon Rattle conducting, and by the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Iván Fischer conducting.  I also found the Concert Chorale of New York somewhat lacking as an ensemble even though it was admirably directed by James Bagwell.

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