The Dude takes a hit off the sheng

This past Saturday night I had my first encounter with Gustavo Dudamel leading the LA Phil. It won't be the last. Although it's difficult not to be skeptical of the dude and form a knee-jerk reaction against the ridiculous hype, I have to admit that it was one of the most exciting evenings in a concert hall I've experienced.

Dudamel walks into his post with some significant advantages- enormous goodwill from the surrounding community, an impressive biography, tremendous press, and most significantly, he's leading an orchestra that may be the finest in the country, thanks to his predecessor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Add to that mix one of the most amazing concert halls in the world, and you may understand why I was saying to myself during the concert "in five years this will be widely acknowledged as the finest orchestra in the country." Hyperbole? Sure it is, but that's the thought that came to my mind.

The concert began with the U.S. premiere of Unsuk Chin's Su (pronounced shu), a joint commission by the LA Phil and and two other organizations. Su is a one-movement concerto for Sheng (a Chinese mouth organ) and Orchestra. The soloist was Wu Wei, known around the world as one of the foremost players of the Sheng, an instrument that looks kind of like a bong made at home by a Tolkien fanatic with a bicycle horn sticking out of it. It has 37 pipes in it and the range of sound Wei created on it was more than impressive- it can mimic many instruments and also sound unlike anything else, with some sounds approximating things usually created electronically- at least in my experience.

The orchestra contained a phalanx of percussion, with a number of instruments I've never seen, including a tom that had three balls spinning around its inner perimeter and a piano whose strings were played but the keys of which I believe remained untouched through the performance. It was quite an interesting piece as the interplay between the sheng and the orchestra didn't follow the usual competition format of a standard concerto but instead became a conversation held in a number of musical languages. Wei's performance impressed me greatly, though having no prior experience with the instrument, I'm responding to it as one might view a talented magician's performance for the first time. The rest of the orchestra responded well to Dudamel's conducting, with the strings especially making a significant contribution to the success of the whole.

After the intermission came Mahler's first, which Dudamel conducted without a score. With the SF Symphony's Mahler project now in its hundredth year (at least it seems like that sometimes), I've grown a little weary of the composer, but Dudamel and the orchestra gave such a vivid account it was like discovering the pleasures of the composer all over again. The first movement was taken at a languid pace, with Dudamel wringing out every sound of nature in the score. A round of applause greeted it's conclusion, which was repeated again at the ending of the second movement. LA may be at the vanguard of going back to the past as far as applause between movements goes, or it may be that Dudamel is attracting a lot of first timers to Disney Hall who don't know they're supposed to sit on their hands until it's all over, but I found the applause to be spontaneous and welcome.

There's viola player in the lead chair that I thought was going to fall out of her seat during the scherzo, she played with such wanton vigor. The rest of the orchestra, while not as animated, followed along with clarity and gusto. The funeral march dragged a bit in the middle section, perhaps with too much solemnity, as if Dudamel wanted to make it as dramatic as possible.

The final movement was taken at full throttle and when the horns rose to their feet there was a triumphant blast I could literally feel in the floor beneath me. It was thrilling to hear (and feel) feel the music performed with such gusto. While Michael Tilson Thomas has recently conducted Mahler with a solemnity and gravitas in most of the recent San Francisco Symphony performances to the point where it feels like time to move on, Dudamel (at least tonight) brought the composer back out into the sunshine.

Dudamel and the orchestra received an ovation the volume of which I have only heard at a rock concert. It was stunningly loud and boisterous and it lasted until Dudamel had to lead the orchestra offstage so they could go home or next door to Patina to have a drink.

There is something special and unique taking place at Disney Hall right now and if you can experience it in person I encourage you to do so. What Salonen did with this orchestra is going to be written about and analyzed for a long time to come, as it represented the transformation of an American orchestra unlike any other. Now this same orchestra is going in a new direction, and the path looks like it's going to be serious fun.