If you felt a twinge of déjà vu as Gustavo Dudamel strode onto the stage of Symphony Hall to conduct “The Rite of Spring” on Saturday afternoon, you weren’t alone. Not even eight months ago, he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a bang-up rendition of the same Stravinsky signature, in week one of an intended two-week Symphony Hall stint that was cut short by an old injury. However, this was not the BSO, this was the Los Angeles Philharmonic — the newly centenarian orchestra that the Venezuelan conductor has headed up for 10 years, half of his adult life.
With the energy it pours into community initiatives such as Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, and its affinity for inventive concert programming and new music — not just commissions, but also gems from the recent past such as Meredith Monk’s spectacular “Atlas” — the LA Philharmonic is the ensemble that listeners have lined up to hail as the very model of a modern major orchestra. I’ve often longingly gazed at its weekly program listings, wishing I had a handy cross-country teleportation device.
But even the winningest team has off days, and for the first half of the concert, it looked like it might be one of those. The orchestra has been touring for much of this month, with dates in Mexico and the United Kingdom already, and the road’s dust seemed to cling to the music. Ginastera’s “Variaciones concertantes” raised the curtain with an enchanting duet for solo harp and cello that Dudamel wisely let the players drive, and a later reprise for harp and solo double bass had still greater impact. However, for all the soloistic chops that were on display, the piece’s many variations lacked a feeling of connection, and the finale’s dance rhythm sounded half-hearted until the final bars.
The first half’s main event was the East Coast premiere of John Adams’s new piano concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,” an LA Phil commission with a solo part written for incendiary pianist Yuja Wang. This also got off to a promising start with a meaty blues groove, deliberately disorienting. It was hard to tell if the rhythm had been knocked askew or if that was as much an illusion as the seemingly gravity-defying purple sequins of Wang’s midriff-baring gown.
However, this concerto also went through intermittent slumps, and neither the orchestra nor the soloist sounded wholly invested. The score afforded the pianist plenty of opportunities to show off her brilliant athleticism at the keyboard, but of these she took few. She wasn’t sloppy, but there was nothing like the explosive energy she usually brings to the table. The slow section, then, was the most rewarding. As the strings rumbled and sighed, Wang’s notes crystallized overhead, as sharply and delicately defined as points on a snowflake.
The composer appeared for a bow with Wang and Dudamel, and was received with cheers. More time and performances will reveal if more can be done with the piece.
I’ve never seen Wang turn down an encore opportunity, and the energy she reserves for those flashy parting gifts rarely fails to surprise and amaze, but in this case, there was never even a question as to whether she’d have enough gas left. She bridged the gap between the American and Russian halves of the program, first delighting with her own arrangement of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s “Danzon No. 2,” a Dudamel favorite, then storming out on Nikolai Kapustin’s scampering “Toccatina.”
The LA Phil rallied back in a big way with a vigorous and carnal “Rite of Spring,” which Dudamel conducted from memory. Tension slowly heated up through the languid bassoon solo and dawn chorus of winds, arriving to the first and lowest of many peaks with the ominous stomp of the “Dance of the Young Girls.” What followed was a journey of many extremes, through barely audible woodland murmurs in the violins, shrill alarm calls in the brass, and a thundering “Dance of the Earth” and final sacrifice sequence. It was a ritual of ecstasy with Dudamel as lead celebrant, hopping and pulsing around the podium as he urged his people on. I could feel my heart beating jagged with every impact of the bass drum.
An actual surprise of an encore followed in the form of Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March,” a thick slice of American cheese that catapulted the audience right out of Stravinsky’s erotic dreams and into Monty Python’s Flying Circus. As he conducted the orchestra with his baton and cued the enthusiastically clapping audience with his free hand, Dudamel’s smile could have powered a small city. The orchestra repeats the program at New York City’s David Geffen Hall on Monday before playing the “Rite” at home next weekend.
LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Saturday.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.