Charles Ives may have composed only four symphonies (six if one counts his patchwork New England Holidays Symphony and the unfinished Universe Symphony), but what a breadth of human experience they traverse, from mawkish youth to psychedelic visionary. On Thursday, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic inaugurated the first of four programs dedicated to the composer’s numbered symphonies. Paired with them are the last three by Antonín Dvořák, the musical nebula which birthed the Ives symphonies. Back-to-back they served as dueling images – landscape from afar, close-up self-portrait – of an America now long vanished. It was the first time since last year that the orchestra’s music director appeared before audiences at Disney Hall, and if the resulting performances were any indication, the orchestra was glad to have him back on their podium.

Gustavo Dudamel © Vern Evans
Gustavo Dudamel
© Vern Evans

Punctuated by rousing horns (led by associate principal Jaclyn Rainey) and pert woodwinds, Dudamel led a buoyant reading of Ives’ First which effortlessly drew out this score’s homespun charm; even airbrushing those moments in which its seams start to show, especially apparent in the first and last movements, into something downright endearing. Though relishing its exuberance, Dudamel was also careful to savor the symphony’s moments of repose and lyric gracefulness. Carolyn Hove’s English horn blew out its delicate cirrus clouds which soared across the horizon of Ives’ autumnal twilight in the close of the pastoral Adagio molto – a Thomas Cole painting bursting into song. And at the work’s coda, a terrific eruption of boyish glee as Ives piles up snatches of the Tchaikovsky Fourth with march motifs straight out of Sousa.

Less symphony than it is crazy quilt comprised of various cribbings from other works, the Ives First hardly portends the shocking originality of the mature composer, but Dudamel’s affection for its genial bustle (and occasional youthful bluster) made it no less enjoyable for all that.

Dvořák’s Seventh, on the other hand, is a taut and even terse affair, the product of an artist at the zenith of his craft. With its minor key and punchy sense of drama, it is sometimes lazily compared to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, but it has none of the brooding nor unbridled emotionality of the later work. Instead, its leanness and control more closely recall the Tragic Overture of his friend Johannes Brahms, composed five years earlier.

Precision and beauty in orchestral performance have become goals unto themselves – even when they come at the cost of drama, explicit or implied, in a particular score. For the Los Angeles Philharmonic, they were the tools which allowed them to render in vivid detail the inner tumult of Dvořák’s patriotic fervor for his Czech homeland, which at times is on the verge of bubbling over into rage. Crisply delineated rhythms were the current that carried the composer’s handsome melodies aloft, with Dudamel keeping a light hand over the proceedings. He made of its Scherzo something which seemed as if it were out of the world of the Slavonic Dances: rustic and impetuous. Even as it grimaces and winces, Dvořák dances.

For those who cannot make it to Disney Hall for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Ives cycle, take heart: the performances will be recorded for future commercial release.

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