By Mandy Katz
The Israel Philharmonic must be the most relaxed symphony orchestra in the world. Really, some of these musicians literally lean back in their chairs while they play. Others sway, and I caught a trombone player whispering with the timpani guy at one point. (Those guys in the back have some really loooooong rests.) And the resulting sound? Gorgeous.
So in sync was the ensemble — performing Mendelssohn and Brahms for a packed house Tuesday night at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — that they gave the impression of playing just for the joy of it in somebody’s (very large) living room. In the familiar “Italian” symphony by Mendelssohn, especially, it seemed the conductor could have walked off stage and the orchestra contentedly continued on their own.
That’s not to discount the influence of this very special conductor. Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, 27, commanded the podium all evening (sans score) in his D.C. debut. Zippity Dudamel, whose new home base is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, lived up to his reputation for warmth and a certain kinetic genius on stage. So expressive are his body and his hands, so impish his smile and so floppy his wild ringlets, he could be the dark-haired reincarnation of Harpo Marx. His gestural repertoire was endless: He tiptoes; he lunges; he jumps, he practically waltzes with the orchestra. To draw out their amazing sound, he also performs the jumping-jack wave, the stagger, the upright shoulder-jerk, the scoop-and-shovel, and the curtain-draw. Then there’s the “We’re #1” finger poke, the toddler-tantrum stomp, the bear hug, the plunger and the leaning tower.
Of course you can’t picture all these movements. That’s why you — and your children, too, please — must see this guy in action. It shouldn’t be hard: He’s everywhere. Over the past three years, Dudamel has conducted just the Israel Phil alone in more than 30 performances around the world, including a show in Haifa in 2006 immediately following a Hezbollah rocket attack. The incident, and Dudamel’s attachment to the former Palestine Symphony Orchestra, calls to mind the similar bravery of performers and conductors like Zubin Mehta (a non-Jew like Dudamel), Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein, as in this Bernstein concert for the troops in 1948 at Beersheva:
The Philharmonic’s current tour, in fact, serves as both tribute to Bernstein, who died in 1990, and a celebration of Israel’s 60th. Bernstein compositions are on the program at many stops, including last week’s Carnegie Hall performances. One Bernstein work played in New York, “Jubilee Games,” commissioned for the orchestra’ 50th anniversary in 1986, contains spoken Hebrew in-jokes centered on Jewish numerology (like the significance of “18,” for example), according to critic Allan Kozinn in the New York Times. But not everyone got the insider stuff 100 percent, the reviewer noted:
Carnegie included the Hebrew text in its program book, but printed it backward. Did no one think to have it proofread?
There were no such flubs (nor any spoken Hebrew, for that matter) at the Kennedy Center, but had there been, they might have been caught by VIP audience members including Israel’s U.S. ambassador and his wife; Switzerland’s ambassador and his wife; and, fresh from a wrist-slapping on Capitol Hill, Senator Joe Lieberman with his wife, Hadassah. I think I also saw Placido Domingo seated quietly in an upper stall. Presumably, many of these honored guests would have known the words to HaTikva, which many in the audience, touchingly, softly sang at the concert’s opening when not just the audience but the performers, too, came to their feet for back-to-back renditions of the U.S. and Israeli national anthems.
In closing, here’s a shameless plug from this mother of two public youth orchestra alumni: The concert was sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society. In an ideal world, every city would have such an organization, especially to replicate its youth outreach efforts. Of course, the granddaddy of all youth outreach programs is the national network of youth orchestras in Venezuela known as “El Sistema” (The System) that produced Dudamel himself. Bravo.