Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dudamel and Abbado, morning and sunset

Can Claudio Abbado really be 74? The fondly remembered former principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony paces himself carefully these days, six years after treatment for cancer ended with the removal of much of his stomach.

As noted in an excellent profile by the New York Times' Daniel J. Wakin, the boyish-looking conductor, now gray and frail, has turned away from the power centers of classical music - La Scala, the Vienna Statsoper and Berlin Philharmonic, which he led from 1989 to 2002 - to lead both the Mahler Youth Orchestra, and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which he founded in 2003, and which he will take to Carnegie Hall in October.

As anyone who's listened to his recent recordings can attest, he's reached the golden autumn of his career, when the respect and rapt attention of his players overcomes declining physical prowess. Every time he steps to the podium, he personifies the immensity of the human creative spirit, and its ultimate fragility. As Mark Twain once noted, it's the kind of thing that tends to concentrate the mind, and the result is often deeply profound performances whose power and emotion carries the best of what we are into the sinews of new generations.

Abbado's tribulations has left his ambition - and courage - undiminished. He's looking forward to conducting Fidelio for the first time next year (11 performances!), and his Carnegie Hall concerts will include not only a pair of Beethoven 9th's, but the Mahler Third, which he conducts at the London Proms tomorrow (Wednesday) night. (You can listen to the concert on-line off the BBC Proms website, both live - my calculation is 1:30 P.M. Chicago time - and as a rebroadcast, for one week only.) The New York Times story also includes links to several snippets of Abbado rehearsing the work.

Gustavo Dudamel is at the other end of the spectrum. The 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor, recently named music director designate of the L.A. Phil, is all cascading hair and explosive energy, leaving audiences limp with excitement as he makes his inaugural tour of the world's great orchestras (including the CSO last spring). Via the irresistibly entertaining - and informative - Opera Chic blog, we pass on Dave Paxton's charmingly purpled account of Dudamel's Proms concert this past Sunday:
Gustavo Dudamel (conducting without a score) violently contrasted the two [aspects of Shostakovich's Tenth], concentrating on hushed textures and interplay of lines in the former and ejaculating the brisker passages with horrifying, agitated urgency.
But you don't have to take Paxton's word for it. You can listen to the entire blazing performance on the Proms website - again for one week only. Would that the unions would allow such real-time broadcasts here. (A couple years ago, union restrictions resulted in the yanking of a broadcast of a Cleveland Orchestra Proms concert from the Proms website.)

Dudamel's Proms triumph was powered not by the members of a Berlin Phil, or VPO, but by his own Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, a 200 person ensemble drawn from Venuezuela's extraordinary El Sistema, a nationwide music program that includes a quarter million children. In capability and inclusiveness, nothing in American music education comes close.

The virtuosity of the young players in the Simon Bolivar was more than a match for that of the blue blooded orchestras with which they shared the Proms, pumping the excitement of critics and audiences alike. "The performance of the season . . . ," gushed The Independent.

" . . . a superstar conductor who on this showing could hardly be priced too high," The Independent wrote of Dudamel, "He is musical in every fibre of his body." Like the young Leonard Bernstein, who made his own incendiary entrance over half a century ago, Dudamel is flying very close to the sun. (Fittingly, Dudamel's Proms concert included an impassioned performance of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.) Dudamel's giving off a brilliant light, and he will pay a price. Savor these all too infrequent moments of unalloyed joy.

A fiery young cub, a lion in winter. To everything there is a season.

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