The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, October 2.
The program, led by guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel, was gleefully, ridiculously, unabashedly populist—endearingly so, but also a bit over the top. There’s something kind of goofy about selecting a Rossini overture AND Ravel’s Boléro AND a collection of Bernstein dances (not the West Side Story suite, to be fair, but so like it that it might as well have been). Part of me wanted something a bit richer and more challenging—something like the Prokofiev symphony Dudamel conducted in his New York Philharmonic debut three years ago. But even in my snobbier moments, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. If one must do a crowd-pleaser-packed program, one might as well do it exquisitely well. It would be easy enough to coast through this stuff—it’s going to get an enthusiastic reaction regardless—but Dudamel and company never rested on the music’s laurels.
As I’m, you know, kind of a snob, I’d love to say the least familiar work was the best thing on the program, but to my disappointment, the opposite was true. I didn’t need the program notes to tell me that Julián Orbón was a student of Aaron Copland. Tres versiones sinfónicas practically screams its influences; its harmonies and rhythms often invoke specific pieces (Lincoln Portrait, Appalachian Spring, El salón Mexico) and inevitably pale in comparison. At least the final movement, “Xylophone: Congo,” has percussive flair to drum up some interest. The middle movement, “Organum: Perotin,” is turgid and inert. Its title refers to a twelfth-century composer, Perotin, who is remembered in music history classes as a master of organum, early polyphony in which a composer laid ornate musical flourishes over a well-know, very slowly paced melody. But Perotin’s organum feels lively and brisk over those droning pedal tones; Orbón’s organum is virtually all drone, and all the duller for it.
Bernstein, bless him, is anything but dull. The eight short movements of Divertimento for Orchestra fly by with playful rhythms, tuneful melodies, and charmingly varied orchestration. Rossini’s La gazza ladra overture is similarly colorful and appealing. Neither work seems to take itself too seriously, and Dudamel led the Philharmonic in rousing, light-footed performances of both.
The program concluded with the two works by Ravel. I generally prefer the original piano version of the Pavane (perhaps simply because that’s what I know better), but the Philharmonic winds carried the plaintive melody with such perfect, solemn sweetness that I forgot my own bias. And Boléro … well, it’s an overlong, monotonous work—with the poor snare drummer driving that endless ostinato into everyone’s skull—but Dudamel started the Philharmonic at an almost imperceptible hush that drew me in in spite of myself, and each soloist to pick up the sinuous melody handled it with élan, as if it were new each time. (The trombonist’s jazzy glissandos were nothing less than delightful.) And maybe all that repetition works in the end because the abrupt final modulation—the one moment when something actually changes—always feels startling, even thrilling. And with Dudamel practically leaping off the podium for the last big crash, how I could help but grin?