By now, it’s clear that many extraordinary things happen whenever Gustavo Dudamel conducts at the Hollywood Bowl. First, the obvious; the attendance swells to at least twice the amount usually seen at classical events here — 13,970 on Tuesday night. The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays with an extra zip and attentiveness beyond its usual high level. The Bowl’s video cameras are locked upon the charismatic 29-year-old Venezuelan, sometimes at the expense of the normally-spotlit soloists in the orchestra. The amplification seems louder; perhaps Dudamel prefers a hotter sound outdoors. Most significantly, Dudamel can freshen even the most overplayed standards in the outdoor repertoire — and he did it again Tuesday, triumphantly, with Gershwin and Bernstein.
To paraphrase Billy Joel, it was a program with a New York state of mind — every piece, even Gershwin’s “An American In Paris,” deeply evocative of that urbane urban landscape. It was also a program drenched with the memory of Leonard Bernstein, who irresistibly led his Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” here in the summer of 1982. His subsequent Deutsche Grammophon recordings of these pieces with the Phil, made in San Francisco a few days later, are still available in nine different configurations, a daunting example for all.
Yet Dudamel is unafraid, even eager, to challenge Bernstein with an energy of his own that does not distort what the composer had to say. He has made the “West Side Story” dances his dashing calling card with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra — and likewise with the LA Phil, the Prologue exploded, the Mambo jiggled, and the Rumble had the right angular violence.
In “Rhapsody,” Dudamel teamed up with fellow Venezuelan Gabriela Montero, a formidable pianist, though not quite as comfortable with the bursts of jazzy 1920s whoop-de-do as Dudamel seemed to be. After some early wayward rubatos, Montero hit her stride with the second cadenza and cruised all the way home. She then treated the crowd to two of her fascinating solo improvisations — first a Bach-chorale-like take on the theme of Beethoven’s Fifth, and then a toccata on “Guantanamera” that nearly veered into “Tico Tico.”
Dudamel displayed some invigorating ideas of his own in Bernstein’s Three Dances from “On The Town” — some sly string glides in “Lonely Town,” frantic tempo changes and a great swaggering feeling in “Times Square.”
“An American In Paris” constituted Dudamel’s best performance of the night — as jaunty as you would want it, all tempos just right in their contexts — and as in “Rhapsody In Blue,” he gave the jazzers in the Phil free rein to blow mean and nasty. For those looking for direct comparisons of Dudamel with his new counterpart at the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, here’s one — Gilbert’s correct yet pedestrian “An American In Paris,” as seen on PBS TV last New Year’s Eve, couldn’t begin to touch Dudamel’s incandescent Bowl rendition. Score one for the Venezuelan kid over a native New Yorker on the latter’s home musical turf.