Every visit of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Santa Barbara is a special occasion, and Sunday’s late-afternoon concert featuring mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was no exception. Maestro Gustavo Dudamel put on a dazzling display from the podium, conducting the program in his inimitable, full-bodied manner and without a score. Dudamel has his own approach to everything, even the way he calls attention to players who deserve special recognition. Rather than nod and point from the podium, he wades in among the music stands, shaking hands and sharing a few quiet words of praise with, for example, cellist Ben Hong after he played a beautiful solo in the concert’s first work, the Symphony No. 1 in D Major, D. 82 of Franz Schubert.
DeYoung’s formidable presence would overshadow many orchestras, but not this one. Listening to the duel between her highly expressive vocals and the equally idiosyncratic music Gustav Mahler wrote for them in his Songs of a Wayfarer was like hearing a tragic opera in miniature. Every phrase struck home with the weight of passion, and these four highly symphonic songs made a useful counterpoint to the songful symphonies of Schubert that bookended them. The concert’s finale, Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major, D. 125, was a whirlwind showcase for the rhythmic precision and subtle articulation Dudamel coaxes from his strings. These first two symphonies, written when Schubert was still in his teens, contain many beautiful melodies and a strong presentiment of greatness to come in the young composer.