Magazine article The Spectator

Music: LA Philharmonic/Dudamel

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: LA Philharmonic/Dudamel

Article excerpt

Apparently it's called 'expectation management'. Pollux, Esa-Pekka Salonen's new work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, takes its name from Greek myth. But as Salonen explains in his programme note, there's more: lots more. It's intended to form a diptych with a second piece called (naturally enough) Castor. It's also part-inspired by Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, and an image (Salonen compares it to Salvador Dali) of a tree growing out of an ear. And finally there's a 'mantra rhythm', which Salonen heard played by a post-grunge band 'during dinner in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement of Paris', which all sounds very civilised.

Still, that's a lot of concepts for a ten-minute piece, and I'm ashamed to admit that having read the programme and made notes throughout the performance, I can't actually remember what much of it sounded like. 'Ikea Hollywood', I've scribbled. I recall spaciousness and transparency: dark curves of sound caught in the sunset glow of the lustrous LA string section. There were spangles of glockenspiel, and near the end, some lounge piano noodling against satin violins.

As for the rest: sorry, gone, scorched from the memory by a performance of Edgard Varèse's Amériques in which Gustavo Dudamel drenched this explosive urban soundscape in impressionist half-tints, made mechanical sirens wail as plaintively as wounded animals and carried the music forward with a sense of rhythmic purpose that made The Rite of Spring sound like Einaudi. Smudges of low string tone; juicy bursts of telephone bells -- Dudamel inflected passing details with a dance-like swing, generating a giddy momentum and a series of climaxes whose raw power practically stripped the lining from your ears. It was beautiful: one of those performances that change the way you think about a composer. And to be honest, whatever I'd expected from Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic's three-day Barbican residency, it wasn't that.

Because no question, Dudamel needs some expectation management too. To put it extremely crudely, current opinion is polarised between those who continue to see him as a sort of artistic Messiah (the classical-music business is never happier than when proclaiming the 'life-changing' powers of its core product) and a sizeable faction who prefer their conductors dead (or as close as possible), and who object both to Dudamel's hairstyle (always a popular line of attack when a critic has nothing to say about the music -- see also Sir Simon Rattle) and to what they see as his problematic past relationship with the rotten government of his native Venezuela. …

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