Music Critics' Grudge Match: Kosman v. Scheinin

"I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him." -- Mark Twain

Every so often it's interesting to see how two different critics review the same concert, same performance.

Today we have Richard Scheinin, of the San Jose Mercury News, and the urbane Joshua Kosman, of the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing the visiting Los Angeles Philharmonic and the insatiable bunch of energy that is Gustavo Dudamel.

So guys, tell me about the concert.

Music review: Gustavo Dudamel bewilders (Joshua Kosman)

First of all, I love this title. It's just so emphatic, yet open-ended.

figure dudamel: Not just a great conductor, he's also a snappy dresser.

It's been less than a year since the 29-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel took the reins as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. How's that working out so far?

Interesting question. I'm going to say...splendidly?

Anyone hoping for a definitive answer to that question from this week's concerts in Davies Symphony Hall - and, yes, that includes me - would have come away perplexed.

Ooh...so close. Sounds like the concert left you with a few question marks after Dudamel's performance.

Dudamel and his band offered up a head-spinning mass of puzzlements.

Oh, Joshua...you and your sprightly word play. But the Los Angeles Philharmonic is an orchestra. Orchestra.

figure puzzlements: The concert starts at 8.

Anything to add Mr. Scheinin?

Review: Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic deliver a dynamic double bill in Davies Hall (Richard Scheinin)

Gustavo Dudamel is the hottest commodity in classical music — in decades. Yet the 29 year-old conductor isn't a physically imposing figure on the podium. He is short. He is chunky.

Unlike Esa-Pekka who looked like he might rip your arms off at any moment.

figure esa-pekka: A fun day at the beach.

Appearing at Davies Symphony Hall on Monday for the first of two concerts that have been sold out for six months, he didn't look as youthful and bright-eyed as he did on his last visit, two years ago.

So, 8 months with the LA Phil have aged him horribly?

But, whatever, just hand that man a baton.

Great. Good introductions. What's on the concert?

Monday's program - combining John Adams' new California tone poem "City Noir" with Mahler's First Symphony - was a replay of Dudamel's opening night at home back in October.

Sounds like a dandy concert...

Dudamel led his orchestra through works by John Adams and Gustav Mahler,...

Yeah, I know, Kosman just said that.

...repeatedly blowing the lid off classical music niceties.

Take that classical music establishment! Dudamel isn't going to take any of your guff!

How exactly did he do that again?

But anyway, in general, how did Dudamel and the orchestra perform?

In his best moments — and there were many — Dudamel literally seemed to be painting in sound or scraping away surface refinements to expose the raw nerves within the scores.

That sounds painful.

Also, literally?

It got giddy, ravishingly ethereal, rock-band frenzied.

Giddy and rock-band frenzied? A rare combo, but yeah! Rock on, Dudamel!

[I know you can't see it, but I'm do air guitar right now.]

It wasn't perfect. The horns weren't spot-on, and the young conductor — just a few years removed from his career's take-off in Venezuela — sometimes pushed the strings so hard that a richness of sound was sacrificed. But I don't think Dudamel is going for perfection,...

Perfection is vastly overrated.

...or certainly not only for perfection. He seems to sense a composer's original or true intention...

Which are in conflict with perfection? God...just like a conductor to sacrifice the music for the sake of the composer.

...and has both intellect and intuition to retrieve it, concentrating energy through his gestures, willing his players toward his vision of the music.

In any case, sounds like an exhilarating performance. How about it, Mr. Kosman? Exhilarating, yet not perfect for perfection's sake?

There were readings marked by phenomenal power and inventiveness,...

This sounds exhilarating.

...and others dragged down into a morass of ostentatious mannerism.

And this not so much.

"Morass of ostentatious mannerism." Frankly, that sounds like one of Dante's circles of hell.

At times Dudamel and the orchestra seemed utterly in sync, only to turn the page and come to grief on a simple question of ensemble or instrumental balance.

Yeah, Mr. Scheinin sort of hinted at this...but, you know, Dudamel chose instead to focus on the "composer's" intent. Pssh.

The orchestra itself struggled in parts (the brass was particularly unpredictable)...

Ding, ding, ding! I think we have a match.

...while excelling elsewhere (especially the strings).

Apparently you like your strings without a rich sound. It's okay...me, too.

So, it seems like you're both approaching this concert with different expectations. Scheinin wants his socks knocked off, and Kosman wants to know if the LA Phil and Dudamel can thrive after the new car smell wears off.

Both perfectly valid approaches. So, let's talk about the music. Of course we'll skip the Adams "City Noir" since no one cares about new music anyway.

How about the Mahler?

Dudamel seemed so intent on blazing his own individual path that he often left logic and rhetorical directness behind.

Again, I can only blame his desire to follow the composer's intention.

In particular, his tendency to push and pull at the tempo, and his fondness for long silences, often interrupted the musical flow.

Those quirks were most apparent in the Mahler, a performance for which "unorthodox" would be a severe understatement.

Well, that's just how we roll here in the States. Sounds like he's been reading up on becoming a "real" 'Merican.

figure unorthodox: To best serve the LA Phil, Dudamel decides to step down as their conductor.

So, his Mahler was pretty fucked up, huh? Cool.

Let's talk first movment.

In the long first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major, nicknamed "Titan," Dudamel took his time, stretching slow tempos and gauzy textures to the breaking point, almost losing the thread.

Interesting. It sounds like you and Mr. Kosman were picking up on some of the same things in this movement. So, the first movement, was a bit of a mess?

He was that confident — taking risks, poking around, waiting for his point of entry to show itself and then going for it with his players: Boom!

Or not...I guess you like your Mahler fucked up. Me too!

How 'bout Debbie Downer over here?

I was intrigued, if not wholly convinced, by his maverick approach to the main theme of the first movement, replacing the usual hiking tread with a lighter-than-air fairy ballet.

So, it's not all bad. Tempos were crazy, but they seemed to have added some interesting twists to a very famous opening movement.

figure maverick: Come on, Gus, do some of that conducting shit!

And the second movement?

Mahler's Scherzo...

[Quick and pointless aside: I've always thought calling this movement a scherzo is a misnomer. It seems to me to be much more related to earlier symphonic minuet movements than to the scherzo (although, that can be a fine line), especially seeing that the main theme of the movement is an actual 3/4 dance. Just saying.]

...began with wildly ripping and playfully galumphing cellos. One of the front-line players kept trying to tamp down a delighted grin as Dudamel — recovering from a pulled neck muscle, sustained while conducting at Disney last week — stepped back and nudged things along with a little shoulder dance.

Playful, delightful and worthy of a "little shoulder dance". Sound like the second movement I grew up with.

In the second movement, Dudamel replaced the music's jaunty, somewhat rustic, rhythms with fierce stompings out of a monster movie....

"Little shoulder dance" and "fierce stompings out of a monster movie." That's basically the same thing.

What else?

...[I]n the third movement, he thumbed his nose at Mahler's tempo marking ("without dragging").

Short and sweet. But I'm beginning to sense that you're not a fan of this interpretation. It's subtle...but I think it's there.

The third movement, built around a minor-keyed "Frere Jacques," cast an enchanted haze of doom, but also captured the garish boom-chick of a rural klezmer band.

I do think it was Mahler's marking of "without dragging" that always kept this piece from having that dreaded "haze of doom". So, I think you guys are still basically in agreement.

The finale to the concert — part of the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers Series — began with crashing outbursts, beautifully corrosive, with tempos dramatically slowing and the volume drawing down to whispers. Dudamel gathered them back up into a swarm, more than once, and the performance grew frenetic, even savage, exposing the raging nobility of Mahler's score in a way that's not often heard. Gustavo really gets Gustav.

So despite some earlier reservations and quirky interpretations from the maestro, it seems we had a great show! Who would have doubted?

Sum it up for us, Mr. Kosman.

[T]he finale was a mess: loud, shapeless and overbearing.



Both are very nice articles, and should be read in their entirety for the exact context of their comments. But I do find it interesting to see how differently two well-informed critics can review the same concert. Of course, they have their unique styles. Kosman with his "head-spinning mass of puzzlements", and Scheinin and his unbridled enthusiasm: Boom!


Sator Arepo said...

"a morass of ostentatious mannerism"

Irony! Get your hot, fresh irony here!

cedric said...

Having been at the concert, I can tell you that the little shoulder dance (basically lifting and dropping both shoulders at the same time with his arms alongside his body) did translate into fierce stomping from the orchestra.

"Morass of ostentatious mannerism": excellent!