Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel
Mendelssohn: Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op. 90, "Italian"
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 91
Last night I was back at the Kennedy Center for a concert featuring two giants of the Romantic music movement, namely Felix Mendelssohn and Johann Brahms. The biggest draw, however, was the Washington debut (yes, we’ve had quite a few artists visiting us for the first time lately) of the hot new thing on the music scene, the 27-year old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who was to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the oldest and most prominent orchestras in the world. The two symphonies, widely regarded as each composer’s crown achievement, are quite contrasting works, which can probably be explained as much by the times they were written in as by the artistic inclinations of their creators.
The evening started with Mendelssohn’s luminous “Italian” symphony, not surprisingly inspired by the year he spent as a young man traveling in that sense-stimulating country. While not a direct replica of Italian music, this work for the large part does reflect the Italian spirit at its more lively and optimistic. Accordingly, Gustavo Dudamel immediately and enthusiastically took charge and the first movement was all bubbly tunes and happy melodies, effortlessly bringing up images of lemon trees and sun-drenched seashores. The gloomier second movement couldn’t quite succeed in drastically darkening the mood, but did slow the pace down a bit with what has been referred to as the “March of the Pilgrims”, possibly inspired by a religious procession the composer had witnessed in Naples. The Mozart-like third movement was gentle and harmonious, and the fourth one concluded the symphony with a very Italian saltarello, which gave the orchestra the perfect opportunity to fully display their undeniable virtuosity.
After the lyricism and songfullness of Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony, Brahms’ elegant but stern fourth symphony appeared even more so. Ironically composed during Brahms’ happiest period of his life, even his trusted friends did not take to its seriousness and austerity when he first presented it to them. It nevertheless eventually became one of his most acclaimed works, especially once the public got over the fact that it was ending in tragedy, a rarity in those days. Yesterday, the orchestra did not hesitate to dwell deep into the quiet intensity of the epic first movement, beautifully driven by an admirable string section. The serenity of the second movement was livened up by playful pizzicatos, and the third movement sporadically provided some almost-comic relief. But tragedy stroke again and eventually took over the fourth movement, dramatically unleashing violent contrasts and climaxes leading to a powerful final impact. Our young star conductor fully immersed himself in the work and gave a no-hold-barrel energetic performance, never hesitating to jump to highlight the most gripping passages, and led the orchestra into a truly compelling performance.
But two musical masterpieces in one evening were apparently not enough, and the audience was blissfully treated to two wonderful encores, the first one being the intermezzo from Manon Lescaut featuring truly heavenly sounds from the principal cello, violin and viola, the last one being a spirited, multi-faceted rendition of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No 1, quite a departure from his dark fourth symphony, and a most welcome upbeat conclusion. The concert proved that not all hype is just hot air, and it was refreshing to see the bright young conductor, far from letting the recurring thunderous applause get to his head, remain modestly among the musicians every time he took a bow.