What a difference a decade makes. The last time Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at Tanglewood in 2006, he took the podium as the hyped 25-year-old hotshot director of Venezuela’s Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar. His image was on the cover of “Gramophone” magazine as one of “tomorrow’s classical superstars,” and his debut at La Scala was impending. Thirteen years later: he’s charging headlong into the future as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (a position he’s held since 2009), he has inspired a character on “Mozart in the Jungle,” and if you’re American and you know what “El Sistema” is, it’s likely he’s the reason why. His long-awaited Symphony Hall debut includes two programs; the run began on April 5 with a seasonally suitable program of Schumann (Symphony No. 1, “Spring”) and Stravinsky (“The Rite of Spring”). On the evening of April 6, he and the BSO delivered a masterclass in bold-faced orchestral storytelling.
In shaping the evening’s two pieces, he played a savvy long game. Early key passages in each piece, such as the “Dance of the Young Girls” in the “Rite,” were handled with a palpably light touch, so when later sections were given heftier accents and dynamics, they sparked with newly found vigor. It didn’t hurt that Saturday evening’s audience was psyched up from the start, greeting Dudamel with bravos and a loud yell of “Bienvenido!” the second he stepped on stage, and the players in turn seemed to feed on the crowd’s zeal.
The enthusiasm and euphoria the conductor channeled was also infectious. Conducting is a full-body exercise for many — Pierre Boulez’s reticent, stark style, which critic Tim Page pithily compared to “a bank teller making change,” seems to be out of fashion — but in a podium-boogie contest between prominent living conductors, Dudamel would probably trounce any competition. Music appears to vibrate through him. In one delicate passage during the symphony’s third movement Scherzo, he didn’t move his baton but let his shimmy-step back and forth dictate the beat; moments later, to pull the dynamics back, he lunged into a deep squat.
Spring itself arouses something primal in many human beings, especially those who live in cooler climates such as Schumann’s Germany, Stravinsky’s Russia, or our New England. That part of us that wondered if winter might never end is hushed for another year. (The weather certainly cooperated Saturday, with a high in the low 60s.)
In Saturday’s performance, Schumann’s vision of spring was dewy and lush. The thick string orchestration, which is sometimes in danger of getting stuck in the mud, sounded dappled and rich, and Elizabeth Ostling’s darting flute carried the sweetness of the year’s first birdsong. After intermission, the “Rite” snapped and pounded, and the score’s hypnotic, sinister qualities were greatly emphasized. The piece’s orchestration is massive, and the wind instruments are pushed to strenuous extremes; bassoonist Richard Svoboda awoke the piece with sublime, slowly rippling high notes, and the wind excellence continued from there. Some of the more aggressive dances hit like a blunderbuss, but too much is better than too little in the “Rite.”
Dudamel’s residency concludes later this week with a program of South American composers.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Saturday. Repeats Tuesday. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
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.