Perhaps the most gracious and illuminating of the activities marking the San Francisco Symphony’s centenary season is the American Orchestra Series, two-day visits by six leading symphonic organisations, all of which have pledged to bring recent commissions in their baggage. According to a pre-performance talk, Gustavo Dudamel, now in his third season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is eager to explore new voices from Latin America. But Enrico Chapela’s Magnetar, given here only three days after its premiere in southern California, betrays no evidence of regionalism.
This electric guitar concerto instead conjures a heavy-metal sonic landscape and outmoded performance devices. The solo instrument possesses only a fingerboard, bridge, tailpiece and plug. The amplified sound whooshes, wails, groans and occasionally rocks (Johannes Moser was the exemplary soloist). At the beginning, the orchestra players rub their hands together and snap their fingers in unison. The electronics are sophisticated, a central movement admits a scintilla of swooning lyricism, but the Mexican composer’s desire to bring a rock sensibility to the concert hall seems compromised: the tone is more congenial than confrontational and was so received.
However, Esteban Benzecry’s Rituales Amerindios, premiered in 2008 by Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony, takes its inspiration from the New World and is a far more intriguing affair. The Argentinian-French composer has subtitled it a “Pre-Columbian Triptych”, and over a 25-minute span offers impressionistic tone poems of the Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures. Despite the immense percussion complement, these rituals flow with an austerity and obsessive pulse that far transcend the realm of tourist exotica. In this brilliant performance, the dissonances clash and recede, and spectralism, minimalism and multiphonics disorient the ear; textures metamorphose and the evocation of a primitive world heralds an original voice.
Dudamel’s passionate attack and the sheer relish of his music-making have won him demigod status in southern California, and those qualities were on display in a galvanising performance of John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine and an ethereal reading of the same composer’s Tromba Lontana. But on both evenings, the conductor’s mannerisms pervaded the standard repertory works. Dudamel drew dense textures and brooding tempi (as well as some dicey intonation) from his players in Prokofiev’s Symphony No 5. But where were the astringent tone, the tart lyricism, the sarcastic inflections that serve as commentary on the composer’s Soviet period? Sometimes, as here in the Adagio, Dudamel’s scrupulous attention to detail inflates the music and almost stifles it.
The reading of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique that concluded the visit was determined to dazzle. And it did: sheer volume too often substituted for artful phrasing or linear continuity. Dudamel demanded an almost visceral response from his cellos and the English horn solo in the middle movement introduced a modicum of poetry. But too often we were subject to an unremitting sonic spectacular. Still, careers have been made this way before.
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