Dudamel: the Real McCoy
By Janos Gereben
San Francisco Symphony
March 20, 2008
Kirill Gerstein, pianist
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
It doesn't matter how much hype is swirling around Gustavo Dudamel. He
is the real deal, a great all-around young talent consistently delivering
There were several remarkable "firsts" Thursday morning inside and out
of Davies Hall. With all 2,750 seats sold for a 10 a.m. open rehearsal,
there was a long line of hoping-against-hope candidates for the nonexistent
tickets, all but waving a finger in the air a la Deadheads in quest of
All this because of the San Francisco Symphony debut of Venezuela's
Dudamel, a 27-year-old superstar who has been conducting for a dozen
year. He has made a huge splash not only around the world - and in
neighboring Los Angeles where he will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as the
Philharmonic's music director next year - but he also became an overnight
idollocally after leading his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in a sensational
concert last November.
Inside Davies, in spite of the great expectations, Dudamel was almost
unnoticed as he casually walked to the podium, dressed in jeans, the
T-shirt tail under a sweater sticking out. Without a look at the score
- which later served as the resting place for the hastily discarded
sweater - he launched into the Stravinsky "Firebird," and suddenly it
became crystal clear what all the hype is about. I will refrain from
reviewing the rehearsal, focusing instead on the evening performance
below, but it is necessary to report two other unusual events taking
place in the morning.
First, near the end of "Firebird," as the battle is won over the evil
magician Kashchei, big, spontaneous applause broke out in the hall, as
if a deafening "Ole!" rose in a crowded bullring. Then, in a unprecedented
scene, there was a standing ovation at the end of the Stravinsky-in-rehearsal.
The standing-O came about again in the evening, and it was no occasioned
by Dudamel cleaning up well for the concert. Not only was there the
same vital, exciting performance again, but Dudamel's few minutes of
quick, brief corrections/suggestions at the rehearsal paid off in creating
a presentation of "The Firebird" that should resound in the listener's
ears and heart for a long, long time. It was an unusual standing ovation
is its spontaneity and unanimity, audience and orchestra celebrating a
Even while Kirill Gerstein unceremoniously polished off the pleasant
banalities of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor
(on an American Steinway, quite without the brilliance of the Symphony's
other, German, instrument), some wonderful sounds came from the orchestra,
whetting the appetite for the Stravinsky.
This was a "Firebird" for the ages, the music pouring through Dudamel,
all the way from the many Ravel-like hushed passages, through Dukas-influenced
playfulness, all the way to the gnarled Bartokian climaxes. Balances
were flawless, rhythmic excitement, lyrical outpouring, charming interludes,
in turn, performed exactly right.
Although it was ensemble playing at its best, individual contributions
were outstanding, especially from concertmaster Alexander Barantschik,
acting principal violist Yun Jie Liu, principal cellist Michael Grebanier,
principal flutists Tim Day and Robin McKee, and pretty much the entire
woodwind and brass sections.
While the music comes from the instrumentalists, Dudamel is responsible
for the gestalt of the sound, in a fascinating sequence of being hushed,
bright, assuasive, charming, glittering, and intense. At the beginning,
the appearance of the Firebird came from a great distance, barely audible.
At the end, the "Dissolution of All Enchantments" and "General Rejoicing"
pulled the audience out of the seats, with a true, cathartic climax, not
Respighiesque circus music. Yes, no hype can spoil Dudamel.
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