Saturday, March 22, 2008

Gustavo Dudamel leads the SF Symphony

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1
Stravinsky The Firebird

The 26 year old Gustavo Dudamel is rapidly becoming a major phenomenon. His 1st appearance with the San Francisco Symphony has been sold out for months, & any returns that came in went right back out. I was excited to attend & be part of the buzz.

Obviously on this program the Firebird is the main event, but 1st came the Rachmaninoff Concerto. Before Mr. Gerstein came on stage, I was a little worried for him. The orchestra was huge, & it looked like he was going to have a tough time competing with it. However, Gerstein turns out to be a piano playing machine, & his sound is heavy enough to hear against the full orchestra. He gave an athletic performance which earned him a scattered standing ovation.

The Stravinsky was Dudamel's chance to show off. This is a flashy piece. It required 3 harps on stage! If Dudamel had simply pulled out all the stops & gone fast & furious, the audience would have loved it. Instead, he gave a surprisingly controlled reading. He challenged the orchestra to sustain expansive tempos in some of the slower, atmospheric episodes. The result was restrained & musical.

The orchestral balances were excellent. Even during the big climaxes with the whole orchestra playing, I could discern individual sections. Dudamel made seemless transitions between the numbers. It seemed like one whole instead of individual pieces.

He definitely inspires a sense of unanimity from the orchestra. They all played as one under him. There was so some nice solo playing as well. I especially enjoyed William Bennett's gorgeous oboe solos.

Dudamel looks great on the podium. He makes fluid movements with his entire body that are as expressive as a dancer's. In fact he looked like a dancer a lot of the time. A couple of times he was even jumping up & down. & to make it all the more impressive, he conducted the entire Firebird confidently without a score. Unsurprisingly Dudamel received an immediate standing ovation. During the long ovation, he amusingly made the orchestra turn around & acknowledge applause from people in the terrace seats. My concert companion rightly commented, "What's not to like?"

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