A bit of March madness has found its way into the local classical music calendar, too, as this second half of the month has offered a density of high-profile concerts not encountered in many moons. A good portion of the calendar’s extra heft comes thanks to the Celebrity Series, whose 75th anniversary celebrations are cresting right now, with visiting orchestras, veteran and rising string quartets, and top-flight soloists in recital adding to an already robust month of local concert offerings.
This weekend, after bringing Yo-Yo Ma to Symphony Hall on Friday night, the Celebrity Series presented the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sunday afternoon under the baton of its dynamic young music director Gustavo Dudamel.
Some advance publicity materials suggested the occasion marked Dudamel’s Symphony Hall debut, and this is certainly true regarding Boston appearances with the LA Philharmonic, which was last here in 1983, when Dudamel was a 2-year-old. But the conductor is no stranger to Symphony Hall, having already blown the lid off the place with his own Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra back in 2007, in a concert that drew a response unlike any I have seen since then.
In the interim years, Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic have been seemingly thriving. The orchestra continues to be an industry leader in terms of innovation in programming and educational outreach. One of its clear areas of focus, first developed by former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic’s president, Deborah Borda, has been to place the music of living composers closer to the center of the orchestra’s mission.
So it was nice to find the ensemble projecting its values through Sunday’s program, whose first half was devoted to John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 of 1988. A moving work “of rage and remembrance,” the symphony was conceived as a deeply personal response to the AIDS crisis, which Corigliano experienced at close range. Full of muscular textures and aggressive massed sonorities, the symphony shouts and thunders its grief, though one of its most memorable moments is a recurring quiet passage in which the strings play a slow and sorrowful melody while an offstage pianist lofts innocent phrases from an Albeniz tango. The sense of mournful recollection is palpable; the Albeniz was the favorite work of a friend memorialized in this score.
Dudamel’s account on Sunday was responsive to the work’s emotional extremes. During the caterwauling climaxes the orchestra produced sheets of detailed sound, though most eloquent were the more reflective passages, the ghostly string choirs and a quietly haunting third-movement cello solo (played by Robert deMaine). When Corigliano took the stage afterward, he was given a prolonged ovation.
The second half featured a fiery and intensely wrought account of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Dudamel seems to have spliced some of the SBYO’s DNA into the LA Philharmonic’s string section, and its playing now projects a tautly unified energy driven by the visible commitment of individual players. With high-octane crescendos and rhythmic figures uncorked with the force of a tightly coiled spring, Dudamel made the outer movements in particular feel like a rugged assemblage of elemental forces. A clearly thrilled audience kept the afternoon’s second ovation going until the Philharmonic responded with an encore: the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” again viscerally dispatched.
This was the final stop on the orchestra’s whirlwind North American tour, and when he was not riding the momentum of the performance, Dudamel looked physically exhausted. He was also apparently battling a flu, which has led him to withdraw from engagements this week with the New York Philharmonic.
Fatigue of course can also have many sources. In recent weeks Dudamel has faced mounting criticism from another direction, with calls for him to speak out as a cultural leader against the political situation in Venezuela. The calls are heightened, it would seem, precisely because so many have held up as a model the progressive social vision of El Sistema, Venezuela’s federally funded music education system of which Dudamel is the most celebrated product. But the situation may be more complicated than some have assumed. El Sistema, and the services it provides hundreds of thousands of children, has endured for decades in a country where so much else is deeply broken, precisely because it has stayed outside of the political fray.
As the debate continues, it was good to see on Saturday afternoon some of the positive musical waves that Sistema-inspired work has been making on both coasts of this country, with Dudamel leading an open rehearsal at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. The ensemble before him was a new Longy orchestra called Sistema Side by Side, in which young students from around the state are mentored by Longy undergrads playing next to them. Also scattered among their ranks on Saturday were 10 Los Angeles teenagers who play in the LA Philharmonic’s own youth orchestra. Dudamel seemed most at ease working directly with the kids, improving the playing of the group while cracking jokes about singing in the shower. “Do you understand me?” he asked the kids at one point. Yes, I think they did.