Review: Gustavo Dudamel Could Be the New York Philharmonic’s Future

On Wednesday, when the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center hosted a news conference announcing that the $550 million renovation of David Geffen Hall had been fully funded and that it would reopen this fall, Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra’s music director, was not in town.

This didn’t feel like a coincidence: As the project, decades in the making, finally materialized over the past few years, van Zweden has seemed like an afterthought, along for the ride.

Who was in New York to lead the Philharmonic, hours after Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams feted the Geffen renovation as a cultural and civic milestone? Gustavo Dudamel, the 41-year-old superstar conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, starting a two-week cycle of Schumann’s four symphonies.

The symbolism was unavoidable. Van Zweden — who said in September that he would be leaving in 2024, opening up one of the world’s most prestigious podiums — is already the past. Dudamel is the Philharmonic’s future.

At least he could be. He made a solid case for the prospect on Wednesday at Alice Tully Hall, with spirited, unpretentious performances of Schumann’s First and Second symphonies, alongside a premiere by Gabriela Ortiz written to accompany them.

The First Symphony (“Spring”) sounded particularly fresh — emphatic without being stiff or mannered, a balance that often eludes van Zweden. The slow second movement built intensity without seeming pressed, and a certain lack of depth in the orchestra’s sound felt here like welcome lightness, with viola and cello lines subtly emphasized to give spine to passages that luxuriated in lyricism.

The Philharmonic is calling Dudamel’s festival “The Schumann Connection,” suggesting Robert Schumann’s ties to his wife, Clara — whose underappreciated music is being played in chamber concerts alongside the two orchestral programs. And to contemporary composers: Two have been commissioned to respond to the Schumanns.

Ortiz’s “Clara,” 15 minutes long, in five sections played without pause, had its first performance on Wednesday. (Andreia Pinto Correia’s “Os Pássaros da Noite” (“The Birds of Night”) comes next week, between Robert Schumann’s Third and Fourth.)

Robert Schumann’s first two symphonies were joined by the premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s “Clara.”Credit…Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

Opening with a series of lingering chords, a kind of tolling ensemble bell, “Clara” is most memorable in long stretches of suspended eeriness, an apt evocation of floating between eras and continents, with the oboe making a melancholy keen.

Recalling Holst and mid-20th-century film scores in its lush colors and noirish dissonances, the piece has at its center a raucous movement recalling Ortiz’s Mexican heritage and her modern sound world: “the unique vitality born out of the entrails of the land I come from,” she says in the program. That driving vibrancy then recedes, in quiet music gently perforated with a pricking constellation of high-pitched percussion. In the final moments, wind instruments are tonelessly blown through, conjuring the sigh of history itself.

Dudamel’s interpretation of Schumann’s Second was punchier than his First, while feeling appealingly improvisatory in a first movement that keeps unexpectedly sidling into new material. Avoiding emotional indulgence in the third movement, this conductor made the music seem a bit impersonal, a play of sound — the winds lovingly passing around solos — rather than a poignant narrative. But the energy throughout felt honestly built, never overemphasized.

The Philharmonic doesn’t play these days with old-school brilliance or majesty, or with the feverish edge that Leonard Bernstein brought to Schumann’s symphonies with this orchestra in his classic recordings.

But with Dudamel — his tempos moderate, neither rushed at one extreme nor sentimentally milked at the other — the ensemble was genial and eager. And its sound was sometimes arresting, as when the strings floated downward in hazy scales at the end of the First Symphony’s Scherzo, or when the winds massed near the end of the Second to uncannily organ-like effect.

Dudamel’s appointment to the Philharmonic’s podium is, of course, far from a sure thing. But it was Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s chief executive, who nearly 20 years ago, in her previous position, grabbed him for Los Angeles when he was just emerging on the international scene. The New York Philharmonic, still nostalgic for the glamorous days of Bernstein, may well jump at the chance to hire one of the few present-day maestros to have achieved that kind of mainstream celebrity.

One thing is clear: Displaying his lively approach to the standard repertory, coupled with an interest in living composers — particularly female ones of color — these programs are meant to show off Dudamel as the model of a 21st-century maestro.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan; “The Schumann Connection” continues through March 20;

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