As part of their North American tour, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed for the first time in Montreal since the heady days of Expo ’67. With the charismatic and energetic Gustavo Dudamel and well over 100 musicians vying for space with the large audience including such musical royalty, such as Charles Dutoit, anticipation ran high for an injection of California sunshine and energy into a dreary and wet first day of spring in Montreal.

Gustavo Dudamel © Richard Reinsdorf
Gustavo Dudamel
© Richard Reinsdorf

A sober looking Dudamel was cheered enthusiastically before he even raised his baton. John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 1, which opened the concert, was composed in 1988-89 as a tribute to the composer’s friends who had died of AIDS. Accordingly, the music is full of violence, contrasts and contradiction, with fleeting moments of nostalgia and vanishing beauty, such as the off-stage piano playing the Tango by Albéniz.

Perhaps better known now for his Hollywood film scores, including The Red Violin (and what better ensemble to interpret his work than the LA Philharmonic?) Corigliano’s symphony is nonetheless a massive work of serious musical pretensions. Dudamel approached it with the gravitas the material demanded and the orchestra attacked it with fervour. A maniacally free-bowed, sustained note begins the first movement and sets the tone for the rest of the work. String sections were solid and unified, playing with unusual intensity and even overwhelming the acoustic in the Maison Symphonique, which must seem parlour-sized compared to the massive Hollywood Bowl.

In fact, overwhelming was the word that kept coming back to me during the intermission. The impact of the enormous brass and percussion sections made palpable the devastating tragedy of the subject matter, but in purely sonic terms, the performance was difficult in the manner of an over-amplified band in a small bar. Climax succeeded climax, the players periodically inserting ear plugs helping us to prepare for the brashest moments. This was a most American interpretation of a most American work: confident, plain-speaking, loud, and yet oddly attractive, enticing and never without a sense of adventure and excitement.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor came after the intermission. Divested of his score, Dudamel led with an intensity that betrayed his investment in this music. He sculpted each line with great intention and brought out each theme with an elastic sense of metre, which never stole from the forward propulsion of the whole. The second movement expressed sustained periods of lyrical sublimity, while the elegant waltz of the third movement was contagious. Climactic moments of incredibly tight and coordinated playing, especially from the brass and strings, were most impressive. The shocking wall of sound which dominated the Corigliano reared frequently, whenever the symphony veered into the territory of fever-pitch, a feature of Tchaikovsky’s music that can be tempered but not avoided altogether. One senses this is a volatile orchestra, tautly wound and ready to pounce at any moment. Dudamel clearly delights in the power and energy of his band.

A unanimous success from the public point of view, Dudamel was called back to stage where he generously walked through the orchestra shaking as many hands as he could, even turning the entire ensemble around to bow to the audience in the choir seats. The warmth with which he greeted his musicians was genuine, and we finally witnessed the Hollywood smile which has graced so many magazine covers since his tenure with the LA Philharmonic began five years ago. A rousing encore of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin rounded off the evening.

****1