The Dude Abides

By Victoria Looseleaf

Move over, Jeff Bridges, there’s a new guy in town. Okay, he’s been here a coupla years already, but he still rocks. Indeed, for those who aren’t yet familiar with Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan-born hotshot music director (he turns 30 this month) of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, welcome to The Dude’s world – one found in the fabulous Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

What the brouhaha’s all about: The Dude, the Phil and Disney Hall. Photo courtesy of L.A. Philharmonic.

Branding is changing the classical music landscape, however, and Deborah Borda, the Phil’s president, is on a roll in helping make The Dude a household name. Taking cues from the Metropolitan Opera, the Phil launched its own series of high-definition concerts, the first one simulcast on January 9. Beamed live to some 450 movie theaters across the States and Canada, peeps from coast-to-coast were privy to The Dude’s singular style of conducting charisma. From such disparate multiplexes as those found in Burbank and New York’s East Village, to Miami, Chicago and, yes, Peoria, the fabulous sounds of the L.A. Phil came to telegenic life. Just think: Instead of having to live in L.A. and fight the traffic and the high price of a classical concert ticket (up to $180. at Disney), Dudavirgins willing to shell out about twenty bucks, could not only chomp on popcorn and clap between movements, but cough and make bathroom runs without getting hissed at.

Profiling The Dude.

Borda also made sure her Dude would get a Hollywood send-off. She booked Gustavo in his first appearance on The Tonight Show earlier that week, while the mop-topped musician had already been featured on 60 Minutes. And for those haunting the streets of the City of Angels, it’s hard to miss the maestro’s alluring visage, which seemingly hangs from banners all over his newly adopted hometown. He’s even got a hot dog named after him at the iconic Pink’s. (Dudamel Dog, anyone?) And his wife, the lovely Eloisa Maturen, a former ballerina who is pregnant with the couple’s first child, is equally photogenic. In other words: It’s a major love fest with the conductor who also holds posts with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (Dudamel came out of that organization’s El Sistema), in Caracas, and the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden.

If music be the food of love, play on.

Extra mustard, puhleeze.

As pour moi? I’ve been a fan of The Dude’s since first seeing him guest conduct the Israel Philharmonic in 2008. Was I in the hall on this historic high-def day? Is Natalie Portman pregnant? (Read all about it here, as I never miss a chance to plug my BS post that recently went viral.) Simply put, The Leaf loves The Phil and was happily ensconced in her favorite seat, a bit above and to the left of the stage, giving her a swan’s-eye view of both orchestra and the dimpled Dude. I wouldn’t, however, have chosen Vanessa Williams to host the afternoon’s event, as she not only had trouble reading her cue cards, but her knowledge of classical music is probably far from vast. But going glam is also the point, as bringing this kind of programming to the masses is no easy feat.

He wants you: Is The Dude classical music’s savior?

So, what did The Dude choose for his first high-def close-up? Beginning with John Adams’ 1995’s Slonimsky’s Earbox (Adams is the Phil’s creative chair this year – his music was also used for Diavolo’s Fearful Symmetries, a collaboration with the Phil at the Hollywood Bowl last August which I wrote about for the New York Times), the concert was off to a rousing start. (Did I really say that, readers, forgive me.) The piece, inspired by Nicolas Slonimsky, a Russian conductor, musicologist, raconteur, etc., was minimalism to the max, meaning this sonic bouquet soared on horns, strings and plenty of percussion for a thrilling 13 minutes.

A youthful Leonard Bernstein: confident, handsome, ever mesmerizing.

After the curtain-raiser came Leonard Bernstein’s three-movement First Symphony (Jeremiah), written during the war, in 1942, when the composer was a mere 24. The Dude is fond of Lenny and it shows: Somber, with waves of stretched-out legatos, the work opens with a movement dubbed Prophecy, continues to a Scherzo that has hints of the composer’s West Side Story to come, then serves up an achingly gorgeous Profanation, the final movement replete with Hebrew text, sung here by the shimmering mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor. The work ended with Dudamel allowing silence to ring throughout the hall, his uplifted arms descending as if a molasses-infused Butoh dance were being performed. Astonishing.

A Bernstein mambo like no other.

But the best was yet to come. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 careened and caromed off the walls, its every sound bringing forth a new idea – something that doesn’t seem possible, as this delectable warhorse is probably playing somewhere in the universe at every moment of every day (or at least in Vienna on a regular basis). The orchestra was like an organic collective, fused to the maestro’s magical baton vocabulary. Bringing in and accentuating each instrument, from tympani and reeds to winds and fervently-sawing strings, The Dude coaxed out choruses of virtuosity. And with Beethoven’s numerous false endings forever in play, listeners were on the edge of their seats…ergo not leaving much leg room in some areas, a mini-design flaw of the hall, which Gehry dubbed Los Angeles’ living room. In any case, there’s no other living room in the country with such acoustics – and no other conductor in the world as exciting – and on fire – as Gustavo Dudamel. He even played an encore, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1, a perfect ending to a perfect high-def day.

Embracing the music. Photo courtesy of L.A. Philharmonic.

Postscript: More to come on The Dude’s second round of concerts in the new year – Mahler’s monumental Ninth Symphony.