Wednesday, August 13, 2008 Royal Albert Hall, London
Written by Graham Rogers
Last year’s electrifying Proms appearance with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela was the sensation of the season; but this rather mixed concert with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra proved that ‘wunderkind’ Gustavo Dudamel has some way to go before he reaches a level of consistent inspiration.
The Swedish players were on excellent form, galvanised into a solid, refined world-class ensemble. The biggest success of the loosely danced-themed programme was the opener, Ravel’s La valse, in which the sumptuous honey-sweet strings perfectly evoked the opulence of late 19th-century Vienna. Dudamel underpinned the shimmering atmosphere with crisp rhythms, and the build-up to the grotesque final bars was thrillingly sustained.
The UK premiere of Anders Hillborg’s most recent work, Six Pieces for Wind Quintet, during the pre-Prom “Composer Portrait” (given by musicians from the Royal Academy of Music) had demonstrated Hillborg’s compelling original voice, centred on rhythmic vitality, and his mastery of concision – the riveting six-movement piece lasted less than ten minutes. Elements of Hillborg’s successful style were evident throughout the more elaborate Clarinet Concerto, ‘Peacock Tales’, written ten years ago for Martin Fröst; but, despite some engaging moments, at the end of half-an-hour of episodic meandering it was impossible to escape the feeling that the music had not really got anywhere.
Fröst is a master of his instrument, excelling in the fiendish pyrotechnics of Hillborg’s writing; but his artistic judgement is more questionable. At Fröst’s request, the concerto provides opportunities for the soloist to incorporate elements of mime into the performance (Hillborg appeared keen to distance himself from this during the “Composer Portrait”, by pointing out that the piece would work just as well without). Fröst is undeniably a decent mover, but his schoolboy array of Marcel Marceau and strutting Michael Jackson (circa 1988) impressions were embarrassing. His peacock mask and the mood-lighting only added to the sub-Edinburgh Fringe ambience.
Dudamel and the orchestra entered gamely into the spirit – mesmerising trance-like passages and toe-tapping bluesy riffs were dispatched with terrific flair – but their commendable attitude was not enough to turn this into a convincing experience. Fröst’s encore – a Klezmer tune called “Let’s be happy” – was an enjoyable showcase played with invigorating raw passion.
Perhaps the insipid performance-art had sapped some of the life from Dudamel; or maybe he had determined to defy expectations; but Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was a depressingly dull affair – an astonishing feat for such a flamboyant score.
The first movement held promise: Dudamel’s taught rhythmic control producing genuinely edge-of-the-seat excitement. The rot started to set in with the unusually slow tempo for the ‘A Ball’ movement; but attractive grace and poise compensated for excessive refinement. The ‘Scene in the Country’ wandered aimlessly into a dismally slow plod to the scaffold: Dudamel’s precision in the ‘March’ itself was impressive, and the brass punctuation shocked like a thunder crack; but it lacked a dangerous swagger, the funereal pace draining all excitement.
Terror finally reared its head at the start of the finale: two enormous church bells had far more character than the tubular kind usually used (although the chilling effect was blurred by their not being dampened). Dudamel leapt around on the podium, but his increasing mania failed to manifest itself on the performance, which never caught fire.
The calculatedly cooling effect of the first encore, the ‘Interlude’ from Wilhelm Stenhammar’s cantata “The Song”, was therefore wasted. It took the Latin-American charm of “Tico Tico” to inspire some soul from the musicians. The audience clapped along to the infectious dance as the brass players stripped off their jackets and boogied. Obviously, there is much more to Dudamel than a sparkling affinity for samba; but the lacklustre Berlioz showed that he doesn’t yet have the Midas touch.