The long wait is over; Gustavo Dudamel has finally made his Santa Barbara debut, and, despite some fairly daunting obstacles along the way, the concert was a triumph. The program was part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Brahms Unbound series, which was conceived by Dudamel as a way of emphasizing the connections between the music of the 19th century and music being composed today. During the course of this month, the L.A. Phil was scheduled to pair each of Brahms’s four symphonies and his German Requiem with a contemporary work. The plan has since run into an extraordinary streak of bad luck. First, composer Osvaldo Golijov was unable to finish his violin concerto on time. Then Henryk Górecki, who was commissioned by the L.A. Phil to write a fourth symphony to pair with the fourth of Brahms, died before he could finish the piece, and Peter Lieberson, who was working on a percussion concerto to pair with Brahms’s third symphony, died just last month, also before he could finish. Fortunately, the other two works scheduled, by Sofia Gubaidulina and Steve Mackey, are already completed.
What we did get on Saturday was a tremendous rendition of the Brahms Symphony No. 1, a flashy account of his Academic Festival Overture, and a fascinating piece by French composer Henri Dutilleux, played with exceptional taste and charisma by soloist Leonidas Kavakos. Kavakos will be familiar to patrons of the Santa Barbara Symphony from his several appearances here with the organization; however, it is safe to say that he has not been heard here like this. The Dutilleux work, titled L’arbre des songes, was written in the early 1980s for Isaac Stern, and apart from distant echoes of masters such as Stravinsky and Messiaen, it doesn’t sound like anything else in the repertoire. Its four movements are linked by stylistically diverse interludes, and the orchestration, which includes oboe d’amore, celesta, cimbalom, and an arsenal of small and large percussion, gives the whole thing a colorful, somewhat treble-dominated flavor.
The opening account of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 was spirited and fresh, with Dudamel conducting in a relatively straightforward manner, clearly intended to show off the range and power of the orchestra. The young maestro’s famed magic on the podium was more obvious after the intermission, when he delivered a searing Symphony No. 1. As with other well-known versions of this classic work, the tempo was slow, but the overall effect was anything but dull. This towering piece of music succeeds on every level. As a revision of Beethoven, it stands as perhaps the greatest single response to the composer’s genius. When the familiar melody of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s ninth symphony makes a brief appearance, slightly transformed in the final movement, the effect is not one of imitation, but transcendence. It’s as though, for a moment, Beethoven is the follower and Brahms has become the great precursor. Dudamel’s interpretation laid its emphases on the work’s mysticism and dissonance, but without rendering it brittle or obscure. The overall tone of the L.A. Philharmonic is gorgeous in the extreme, and in The Granada it was hard to imagine that they could sound any better.