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Review: Vienna Philharmonic defies expectations in Danville

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, performed in September 2010 at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville as part of the Fortnight Festival.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, performed in September 2010 at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville as part of the Fortnight Festival. Lexington Herald-Leader

DANVILLE — The great thing about expectations is when they are dashed — for the better.

The august Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra never plays outside the musical capitals of the world. But Monday night, there they were in Danville's Norton Center for the Arts on Centre College's campus. And they surely would make a poor match to one of the most exuberantly youthful conductors in the world today: Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel. (The Vienna Philharmonic uses only guest conductors.)

Count it a match. Dudamel was wise to never over-conduct. Not once did he subdivide a beat to be clearer. His trust in the cohesion of musicians he barely knew was total. And what he got in return was total commitment. It is so rare to see every single musician dig in with so much conviction.

Some expectations held. Dignity from central Europeans as opposed to informal directness of Americans. The sound of the instruments reflected that. The string tone was not volume-rich and certainly not edgy, but it was unbelievably luminous. Woodwind tone was subtle, even thin, especially in the double reeds. The flutes were so cottony smooth that they didn't cut through the texture well in solos. The grand exception was the first clarinet: a tone of gold, played by a man with music in his very bones.

The perfect showcase for these instruments was the concert opener, Antonín Dvorák's Symphony No. 9, "The New World." As much as Americans love to claim this work — Dvorák wrote the piece in the United States — it is quintessentially European in sound. The symphony is often played with American brashness, but this reading was controlled excitement. Blend and clarity of layers were in perfect balance.

And so were the musical thoughts. Several times, a soft flute solo was answered by violins so caressingly it was like willow branches bending over lovers. Now that was Dudamel's doing, and he indicated it with typical understatement. Oh, he could be a viper with his baton. The very next moment was an explosion that was riveting in its contrast. But there was not a bit of the showboat in his gesture. That shows respect for the orchestra.

All bets were off for the first selection after intermission, Leonard Bernstein's Divertimento of 1980. The orchestra's personality did a complete about-face. The extrovert Bernstein, with his fabulous fanfares and peg-leg dances and naughty non-sequiturs, found plenty of gamers to match him. Perhaps the jazz riffs could have been more down and dirty. But you had to love Dudamel's Charlie Chaplin conducting style.

Two Maurice Ravel pieces topped off the evening, Pavane for a Dead Princess and Boléro, and you would expect French music to sit uncomfortably. But exquisite subtlety was back. There was no over-emoting in the sad Pavane. The killer French horn solo was suave. The strings were luscious. And the conductor, loving and natural.

The beginning of Boléro was as courageously done as the beginning of the Dvorák symphony: almost inaudibly soft. Few conductors will try it. It couldn't have been missed, how much tension was built in expectation of the crescendo to come. That expectation was fulfilled. And the ending was full-bore abandon — along with the audience's appreciation of it.

Then what a delight in a Viennese encore treat, Johann Strauss Jr.'s Pizzicato Polka. It was, of course, tort sweet.

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