Thursday, 19 March 2015

Getting the Dudamel Treatment

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel (centre) getting lots of love from the audience
Over two years ago I went to Los Angeles and visited the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a massive steel structure that looks like massive pages from a musical score. We got to have a peek inside, though the Los Angeles Philharmonic wasn't inside, nor its musical director, Gustavo Dudamel.

The 34-year-old is quite the sensation. He received his musical education through the El Sistema system, where children learn instruments and how to perform together several hours a day -- for free.

It's given Venezuela, that was ruled by Hugo Chavez until his death in 2013, an opportunity to prove the state can do good things for the arts, and Dudamel is that poster boy.

Perhaps that's why he is very humble on stage, thanking practically each and every one of the musicians on stage with him tonight, after they performed Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 6 in A minor at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall as part of the 43rd Hong Kong Arts Festival.

When I found out he was coming to perform here, I tried to order a ticket right away, and was told the cheaper ones were all gone and had to buy the more expensive ones at just over HK$1,000 ($129) a pop! It was a lot to swallow, but I felt this may be my only chance to see the musical wunderkind who once broke one of Leonard Bernstein's batons while conducting the New York Philharmonic back in 2007.

It was practically a full house tonight, as everyone there was as excited as I was to see Dudamel do his musical magic. When we entered the concert hall we were told there would be no intermission -- four movements straight through for an hour and a half.

To be honest I don't know much about Mahler and his music, but this piece was palatable and pleasant to listen to, with periodic punctuations from the various percussion instruments from a gong to xylophone, and even using a wooden mallet to hit a block of wood very loudly -- twice! Some percussionists had to leave the stage to play cowbells in the distance!

There was a very full orchestra on stage, where the double bass sat on the left side of the stage, perhaps to make room for the two harpists and two harpsichordists? We could not tell from our angle what kind of keyboards they are, but they weren't upright pianos.

When Dudamel made his way to the podium, it was even more impressive to see there was no stand for his music, as he had memorized the entire score! He is apparently a Mahler aficionado -- he won the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004.

Dudamel also completed his Gustav Mahler Project in 2012 -- conducting all nine symphonies (including the unfinished 10th) by alternating between the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela that he still leads.

While he knew the score off by heart, the LA Phil players were well versed in the music and played very well. By the end of the 90 minutes, many in the audience jumped to their feet to applaud him and the orchestra. Near me were two people holding up the Venezuelan flag and it seemed like he saw it too.

We clapped non stop for several minutes as Dudamel came out several times to bow and get each of the players who performed solo parts to get their recognition. However there was no chance of an encore when the lights went up and Dudamel asked the orchestra members to leave the stage.


Nevertheless it was neat to see a young person leading an orchestra with players that were almost twice his age. He was keen for them to get as much of the accolades as him. Very classy.

Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
March 19, 2014

Gustav Mahler Symphony No 6 in A minor

Allegro energico, ma non troppo; Heftig, aber markig
Andante moderato
Scherzo: Wuchtig
Finale: Sostenuto -- Allegro moderato -- Allegro energico

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