Maestro Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela concluded his season as the University’s first-ever Artist-in-Residence in front of a packed auditorium Saturday.
Nearly 1,500 students, faculty, community members, and music-lovers were in attendance at the Patriots Theater in the Trenton War Memorial. The grand auditorium’s gilded amber trim — inspired by the Italian Renaissance Revival architectural style — glowed softly under the house lights as hundreds upon hundreds filed in to take their seats.
Three projector screens flanked the stage: two standing approximately twenty feet high on either wing and a horizontal one measuring over twenty-five feet wide affixed just below the proscenium. The blank, white screens appeared awkwardly out of place, and it wasn’t until the second half of the program that their purpose became apparent.
Dudamel took to the stage to thunderous applause. He opened the concert with Schubert’s Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (“Song of the Spirits over the Waters”) with an intimately sized string orchestra and the tenor and bass sections of the Glee Club.
The imperceptibly quiet beginning was remarkably dramatic and somewhat unexpected, to the point where some audience members had not completely settled down and were not even aware that the piece had begun.
Just two days earlier, in a rehearsal at Richardson Auditorium, Dudamel had worked with the orchestra on the first line alone of that piece for nearly five minutes, a testament to his pursuit of musical perfection.
At the open rehearsal, Dudamel had raised his two hands and turned towards the double bassists in the back. Following an an almost imperceptible flick of his wrist, the bassists dug their bows into their strings for the opening C.
Barely had the note broken the barrier of audible sound before he waved at them to stop. “Soft,” he had whispered, before lifting his arms again. They attempted the opening again, but to no avail. “Softer,” Dudamel said. The bassists raised their bows yet again and Dudamel moved his fingers as if caressing the sound that hung delicately in the air. They hadn't even reached the second measure before they were waved off for the third time. “No crescendo,” he exclaimed. During that rehearsal, it took the orchestra what felt like an eternity before the conductor was satisfied.
However, it was clear at the concert on Saturday that the maestro’s meticulous attention to detail had paid off. Dudamel took the audience on a journey through roaring waterfalls, across placid lakes, and above spectacular cliffs. The musical setting for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s eponymous six-part poem was inspired by the writer’s visit to the Swiss Alps, and Dudamel successfully encapsulated every aspect of the beauty and wonder of the trip.
Dudamel’s poetic interpretation proved to be a sharp, yet refreshing departure from his archetypal flamboyant conducting style. His ability to tempt the rumbling, foaming water from the basses and shape the lilting tenor voices of the blowing winds infused an air of drama that resulted in a beautiful spiritual resonance between the choir and the string instruments comprising only violas, cellos, and double basses.
The hauntingly beautiful male-voice octet choral setting sung by over forty tenors and basses compared human destiny to the eternally unstable and dynamic nature of the waters and winds. What resulted was an expressiveness and dramatic tension that was — at times — reminiscent of that found in Erlkönig, one of Schubert’s most famous lieds, with text also set from a poem by Goethe.
For Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture based on “Romeo and Juliet”, the entire symphony orchestra entered onto the stage. Dudamel introduced the saintly Friar Laurence by painting a chorale-like portraiture, but not without a presage from the lower strings. An alternating inversion passed between the woodwinds and strings transitioned the symphonic poem into the tempestuous Allegro theme, representing warlike feud between the Montagues and Capulets.
However, the two families’ sword fight did not seem to fully arrive at its exciting climax. Even the strings’ agitated sixteenth notes interspersed with stormy crashes of the cymbals left a bit to be desired. Dudamel’s baton, quivering with excitement, did not seem to find success in coaxing the explosive sounds necessary to fill the entire concert hall.
As the love theme suddenly took over, the fleeting disappointment of the prior B minor section was soon forgotten. The passion in Dudamel’s face was reflected in the musical evocation of Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene, in a dialogue of sorts between the English horn and the flutes. The luscious, passionate melody yearned with Dudamel’s sweeping arms, underlaid with a slight, but noticeable sense of unease and impending doom.
As the piece entered its final section, the love theme tragically interrupted by cymbal crashes, the merciless sadness was palpable. This time, though, as the passionate rhythms of the battle theme played, the tympanic roars and symphonic chords did indeed do the coda justice, as the orchestra belted out the final eight chords with cold and unforgiving decisiveness.
The second half of the program comprised one entry only: the fourteen-movement Mendelssohnian masterpiece: incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — featuring sopranos and altos from the Glee Club, as well as three narrators, Victoria Davidjohn ’19, Jacy Duan ’21, and Kateryn McReynolds ’20, and two vocal soloists, soprano Allison Spann ’20 and mezzo-soprano Caroline Zhao ’19.
The Overture opened with four chords played by the woodwinds before the pitter-patter of dancing fairy feet entered. The sound of the fairies faded in and out of the foreground, as the majestic, almost celestial, lover’s theme took over. The strings interjected the scuttling with the “hee-haw” of Nick Bottom’s braying, as the two primary themes intertwined into an entertaining musical comedy of their own.
As Dudamel transported the audience into the magical forest of fairyland, images began to fade into the view on the two upright projector screens, prompting gasps from the audience. Fireflies appeared in front of a silhouette of barren tree branches, with glowing purple and orange orbs of light floating in the background, fading out just before the end of the first movement.
During the singers’ first entrance, the central screen panned across several vertical Victorian-esque paintings of nude fairies suspended above clumps of dewed ferns and mushrooms. As the soloists and choir sat back down during the Intermezzo, a golden vine crept up the side of the stage, in full bloom. Throughout the agitated the sixth movement, Hermia desperately searched for Lysander, who had disappeared in her sleep. At the end, a folk-like dance melody takes over and the vines faded into a cold, icy silver color, the flowers falling off.
In the Nocturne, the horn solo painted the picture of Puck’s magic spell, while orbs of light floated behind another silhouette of tree branches amidst a Prussian blue backdrop. In the center, an animation of Sir Edwin Landseer’s “Scene from a Midsummer Night’s Dream” revealed Tatiana resting her head on Bottom’s shoulder, stroking his arm as fairies looked on.
Throughout the remainder of the piece, Dudamel appeared to conduct most of it by memory, only looking down momentarily during the transitions between narration and orchestral music. At one point, Dudamel stood motionless, arms at his side. Gazing contently, he appeared to take a break from his theatrically passionate conducting, entirely entrusting the direction of the piece to the orchestra.
After Puck’s valedictory speech, the finale entered with the full women’s chorus. Fiery red petals floated down, as the characters congregated across all three of the screens. The four iconic introductory chords sounded again, bringing the work full circle.
As the projections faded to black and the music came to a close, a standing ovation erupted, with over five minutes of uninterrupted applause. Further supplementing the drama of the Shakespearean comedy, Dudamel dazzled the audience with his own, unique balance of excitement and delicate sentimentality. His performance was galvanizing, yet intimately uniting at times, serving as a reminder that music lies in the core of our humanity, and never exists in isolation. For the hundreds of audience members present that afternoon, the maestro had delivered a generous helping of magical pixie dust, an awe-inspiring closure to a whirlwind residency that did not disappoint.