BSO: That Voodoo that Dudamel Do So Well

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the BSO
(photo: Hillary Scott)

Mention the name of Venezuelan-born Conductor Gustavo Dudamel and immediately the name of Disney (Hall) in Los Angeles comes to mind, where, as music director of the L A. Philharmonic, he most often accomplishes the magic he and the late Walt both share. (He is also the principal conductor of the Gottenburg Symphony in Sweden). When it was first announced that he would be coming to conduct the BSO this spring, audiences were eager to learn what repertoire the wunderkind would be including for his much-in-demand visit in these parts. Given the time of year, what could possibly be more appropriate and timely than a program that features two seasonally inspired masterworks, Robert Schumann's Symphony No.1 (“Spring”) and Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring? And how clever was it to balance diametrically opposed portrayals of the birth of the season, one vernal, the other infernal?

Schumann's Symphony No.1 in B-flat, Opus 38, heard the sound of daybreak in March 1841 after a swift (less than a month) spell of first sketching and then composing, conducted in Leipzig by none other than Felix Mendelssohn, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. As is mentioned in the BSO program notes, it was a time when a cornucopia of compositions in European music included such composers as Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner and Mendelsshon, finally forming in music for the first time an intentional reflection of the Romantic Movement so prevalent at the time in the other arts. Beethoven's music influenced the Romantic composers' new styles with its freedom to put aside the conventional narrative using a more structured and confined form. Still, Schumann produced an orchestral sonority, which later writers found overly composed and thick, and which may have reflected the eventual view of the entire era rather than a critique of the composer himself. In the case of his “Spring” work, it can be heard as a wake-up call that mankind (and womankind) encounter every spring, each time as though it were the first. Schumann based this piece on two Bottger poems, first identifying segments by name, a practice he eventually dropped. His dominating methodology was restating and expanding motifs; in this symphony his independent poetic codas balanced by an operatic finale seem to be aimed toward each listener independently. Sadly this was mirrored in the intensity in his life which ultimately led to madness and final days in an asylum.

Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps or The Rite of Spring was commissioned by none other than famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev and first performed in Paris by the Russian Ballet in 1913. The first BSO performance was not until 1924. It was not Stravinsky's first composition for Diaghilev, as he had had great success already with The Firebird and Petrushka (the latter to be played next month by the BSO under Andris Nelsons). But this was such a radical departure, in so many departments, that it literally shocked his audiences, not least with its violent vision of the arrival of spring, which he had based on an old Russian pagan ritual in which a village of elders stood by as a young girl in fertility rites danced herself to death. In its first half, after the famed entry of solo bassoon (here beautifully delivered by Richard Svoboda) there was the ritual of sacrifice, expressed primarily in dance and accompanying music, with a heavy influence from folk songs borrowed from traditional culture, really not a theft of the songs but more of a transformation of the genre. With rhythms and accents intentionally misplaced, shifting meters, and raw energy, it so upset some first-time hearers that it caused an infamous riot. Some short-sighted patrons at the time were repulsed by its seeming attack on the traditions of the arts, but it would come to be seen as an attempt to convey what art was capable of creating and how that may be communicated. It's rightfully recognized today as a milestone in the history of musical composition. Still, even today, it sounds as though it were written tomorrow.

Dudamel displayed familiarity with both works and worked his magic well (even with the parts of Stravinsky's work that long ago found their way into Disney's movie Fantasia). The BSO was equally at home with the program. Both pieces, especially the Stravinsky, demand a leader who is vigorous, decisive and completely in charge, and Dudamel fit the bill on all these prerequisites. The BSO has performed these works under seventeen conductors in the past, surely rarely so rapturously received. T. S. Elliott famously referred to April as the cruelest month, and this was reflected in both works, in particular in The Rite of Spring, definitely not a piece for the faint of hearing.

This program will be repeated Tuesday April 9th though under Conductor Ken-David Masur, as Maestro Dudamel has had to withdraw due to an injury. 

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