Dudamel unleashes Verdi's Requiem

Conducting the LA Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel demonstrated his command and also his respect for silence when he restarted the piece after a cellphone ring jarred the opening bars.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Venezuelan born, Gustavo Dudamel, the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
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This city's newest crossover artist, Venezuelan musical superstar Gustavo Dudamel tackled Verdi's Requiem this week and showed a sell-out crowd why the classical music world has such high expectations for this 28-year-old.

The work for orchestra and chorale, contains some of the most delicately quiet and urgently loud moments in the universe of unamplified music. To take both an audience and an orchestra through those treacherous extremes is only one of the skills this youthful maestro possesses, says Judith Mass, who plays in the first violin section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Standing in the airy foyer of the Walt Disney Concert Hall immediately after the performance, Ms. Mass muses about the 85-minute performance in which she had just played.

"I think he's the first of the greats of this century," she says, warming to the qualities that already single him out. "He has this great humility at the same time as an extraordinary humanity," she says, adding that despite his youth and newness to the LA orchestra, in rehearsals Mr. Dudamel takes complete responsibility for the sound of the ensemble. "We can see him thinking and all he will say is that it is his fault if the orchestra doesn't sound as he thinks it should."

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She also points out that the orchestra itself had a major transition to handle when it moved into the relatively new concert hall in 2003. The company had been used to playing in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next door, but the acoustics of the new venue are so improved that the entire group had to both rethink its own touch as well as raise audience awareness.

"We never had this kind of appreciation for silence before, but Dudamel does. We've had to retrain audiences to become much more quiet," she adds, with a knowing laugh.

The conductor had the opportunity to show off this particular talent in the opening moments of the Requiem. After entering to sustained applause, the diminutive figure mounted his podium and waited for pin-drop silence to descend in the hall. Then, he signaled the cello section to begin its devilishly soft opening. The sound is so gradual that at first, although one sees the bows moving, no actual sound is yet perceptible. But, just as the tone became audible and other instruments began to join, the unthinkable happened – a cellphone blasted a jarring electronic ring through the hall. The audience response was instant – a hiss of condemnations swept through the crowd until the offender turned off the noise. Meanwhile, the conductor shut down the orchestra and waited. He did not begin again until another, more profound silence had fallen on the hall. "He really appreciates the power of silence," says Ms. Mass with a laugh.

While the audience appeared to be heavily populated by season ticket holders and longtime symphony lovers, Dudamel is clearly reaching beyond the LA Philharmonic's traditional base. There were first-timers at both ends of the demographic spectrum in the hall. Isabel Belloso, who is 27 and hails from Venezuela as well, says the evening made her want to audition for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which performed with the orchestra – and to work with Dudamel. "He's so amazing, he has so much energy and passion and is so involved with the music and the orchestra," she adds.

At the other end, Henry and Mary Torres, both in their 60s, say they wanted to come after they saw Dudamel perform in a television special. "He brings something special, so invigorating," says Mr. Torres.

This enthusiasm for the new conductor is not surprising to Eugene Wei and Mira Lew, two thirtysomethings who have been following Dudamel for years. "We've been the youngest in the audiences for years," Mr. Wei says, to which Ms. Lew adds: "We think Dudamel will change that."

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