Chávez’s Sinfonia india, Dvorák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5

The New York Philharmonic on Saturday, December 1.

Gustavo Dudamel is younger than me. I couldn’t help but think that as I watched the twenty-six-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind lead the New York Philharmonic as guest conductor. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I’m not particularly ambitious, however much I might think I ought to be, so people like Dudamel fascinate me.

To succeed so spectacularly at such a young age, surely you must have always known what you wanted to do with your life and pursued it single-mindedly, never slowing, never veering off course, never even questioning your direction. Such a course seems terrifying to me, but if that is indeed how Dudamel has led his life, it obviously has worked for him. The skill, self-assurance, artistry, and joy with which he conducted the Philharmonic musicians, some of whom have been members of the orchestra for longer than he has been alive, were nothing short of dazzling. Expectations for the concert were astronomical (the media breathlessly reported that Dudamel had been lent one of the legendary Leonard Bernstein’s batons for the occasion), and he didn’t disappoint. Led by Dudamel, the Philharmonic delivered one of the best performances I’ve ever heard from that orchestra.

I wasn’t that familiar with any of the pieces on the program, so the introduction was delightful. Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonia india, rightly compared to the grand, folk-influenced work of his contemporary Aaron Copland, was marvelously colorful, making use of a wide variety of percussion instruments native to Mexico. (The india of the title refers not to the Asian India but rather to the indigenous peoples of America.)

In the concerto that followed, Dvorák rarely featured the violin as an exclusively solo instrument, with everything else as mere background accompaniment. Instead, he nearly always paired the violinist with, say, the flute and oboe or with the low strings or with muted brass, and the resulting textures were stunningly diverse. Integrated into Dudamel’s energetic, passionate orchestra, yet still his remarkably talented self, soloist Gil Shahan shined as a consummate musician as well as technical virtuoso. He was like a brilliant sapphire set among countless smaller diamonds, each gem the more beautiful for having been placed so perfectly.

The program concluded with Prokofiev’s fifth symphony, which was thrilling. (Prokofiev is probably my favorite Russian composer. Sean disapproves, arguing that Stravinsky towers over them all, and he may be right, but I still love Prokofiev and his twisty, unpredictable melodies best.) Here the orchestra was at its finest: vivid, dynamic, and always perfectly precise. As the symphony unfolded, moving from the lustrous Adagio to the raucous Allegro giocoso, the musicians never lost momentum or cohesion. They functioned as a single creative entity, building to a breathtaking finale that drew round after round of wild applause.

Before I attended the concert, I assumed that much of the hype surrounding Dudamel was derived just the novelty of a small, floppy-haired young man bouncing around the conductor’s podium like a hyperactive child, but now I realize how unfair that notion was. (To be honest, most of the time I didn’t even watch him. The bouncing was a distraction.) Of course the Philharmonic always plays exquisitely, but Saturday night was truly special, in a way I don’t know how to describe. The air felt electric. Every note sounded alive, as if it had been composed yesterday.

I still think all the buzz casting Gustavo Dudamel as the second coming of Leonard Bernstein is terribly premature, not to mention demeaning to both men. But I do believe, having heard him conduct, that he is an exceptional talent, and I feel so honored to have experienced his New York Philharmonic debut.

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