Gustavo Dudamel may very well be the most visible man in Los Angeles, with his face arguably more pervasively displayed here than even the mayor’s or the current head of state’s – neither of them being terribly popular in the City of Angels as of late anyway. For pedestrians and commuters coursing through the Bunker Hill environs of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s home, Dudamel’s visage – carefully orchestrated, so to speak, to appear sage, sensuous, yet affable – is virtually inescapable, gazing contentedly upon passersby below. It seems that one could find him virtually anywhere in Los Angeles – anywhere, that is, except the rostrum of Disney Hall.

Susanna Malkki
© Simon Fowler

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is already halfway through its centennial season, yet its music director, who has become a virtual synecdoche not only for the orchestra, but perhaps also for the city itself, has been strangely absent during the festivities. Last seen in October, he will only be returning briefly at the end of the month for a program of film music, then remain away once more until the very end of February. His prolonged absenteeism during such a historically important season would be fodder enough for a spin-off to a certain series of beloved children’s computer games from yesteryear: Where In The World is Gustavo Dudamel?

His absence was keenly felt last Friday in a program that culminated in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, the composer’s riotous paean to spiritual and carnal love. Making a potent impression with the score back in October 2010, hearing him lead it last week would have been a welcome opportunity to gauge his artistic development. Instead, the orchestra was once again lead by its principal guest conductor, Susanna Mälkki, who has herself become quite visible at Disney Hall recently.

The Messiaen score is exactly the sort of work that appeals to Dudamel’s strengths: it is bold, colorful, extrovert, aflame with a passion that can seem to barely be constrained within the staves of the printed score, threatening to ignite it into spontaneous combustion. Mälkki, instead, soberly poured cold water on this incendiary mixture of disquiet and ecstasy. Refusing to let the orchestra off its leash and allow it to immerse itself in the sheer headiness of Messiaen’s art at its most excessive, the edges of this wild music became seemingly couched in Nerf, its tensile eroticism met with a stiff handshake followed by an icy “good night.”

Which is not to say that Mälkki’s performance was utterly bereft of worthy qualities. Her reading of the "Jardin du sommeil d’amour" was striking, wherein the pulsing heart of the music was delicately suspended while sighings interwoven by bird call arabesques soared overhead. But the Turangalîla is more than the sum of its surface beauty: it was Messiaen’s great declaration of love (momentarily frustrated) for the score’s muse, Yvonne Loriod, as well as a roaring cry against the the ossified Boulangerian neoclassicism that had by then deeply encrusted itself into French music. Mälkki appeared to be disinterested in these details, preferring to keep a Puritan distance from the music. This was Messiaen as sober professor rather than ardent lover, rational rather than Romantic.

No stranger to this score, her piano soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, has appeared in an acclaimed recording of the symphony with another orchestra, and is regularly called upon by other ensembles to perform the challenging part. Some of the finest moments in last Friday’s performance were the rare moments where he could break away on his own, such as the cadenza that augurs the close of the "Joie du sang des étoiles", exulting in this brief ecstatic apotheosis that stood apart. Cynthia Miller, the ondes martenot soloist, is another Turangalîla veteran (both she and Thibaudet, in fact, appeared in the orchestra’s previous performance of the work in 2010), performing her role with great expressivity and nuance, although her instrument was sometimes regrettably lost amidst the orchestral maelstrom.

Mälkki was on firmer footing in the preceding work on the program, the West Coast premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s harp concerto, Trans. In fact, composer and conductor have collaborated before, perhaps most famously in Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera under Mälkki’s baton. Trans, which was composed for Xavier de Maistre and played by him, is typical of the composer’s best work. Luminous, with beautifully imagined instrumental colorings and judicious exploration of her soloist’s instrument, it possessed a refreshing coolness that made it an ideal counterweight to the Messiaen work that followed. It was also testament to her profound sense of craft, allowing her to elegantly surmount the challenges of writing a score for harp and orchestra. Especially delightful was her discreet handling of percussion, sure to be a textbook example in an orchestration handbook of the future.

Nevertheless, it was difficult to ignore the proverbial elephant missing from the room. Listeners will have to wait for another time to hear their orchestra’s music director in the Messiaen, a score which he, as it turns out, has toured with in the recent past (although tellingly not with the Los Angeles Philharmonic). In the meantime, the rotating door of guest conductors is set to keep spinning for a few more weeks. A harbinger of things to come in 2022? For the sake of one of the great success stories of the American orchestra in recent decades, let us hope not.