Dudamel’s LA Phil perform Norman’s Sustain at the Barbican… oh.. and they played Bruckner too

Ms B & I have just returned from one of the most noteworthy but ambiguous symphony concerts we’ve seen this year. An absolutely mind-blowing, era-defining first part, and a hugely disappointing, misplaced, misdirected main part.

We’ve been huge fans of Dudamel for many years (and have blogged about him before), to us he feels like the Jimi Hendrix of classical music. His directing can turn a pretty decent piece by one of the geniuses of centuries bygone into an absolutely genius work. We also like the fact that he’s a political activist and very active with his youth orchestra and plenty of other projects.

The LA Phil’s three-day residency at the Barbican closed tonight with Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, preceded by the European premiere of Sustain by Andrew Norman. Sustain, roughly 40mins long, was commissioned by the orchestra to celebrate their centenary last year, and clearly to do so was the perfect choice. Everything is tailored to Dudamel’s and his crew’s needs and abilities. The collaboration, which stretches back over many years of premieres and commissions, seems like a match made in heaven, and Sustain crowns it all.

The composer, in his late thirties (when he wrote it), like Dudamel, called his child a ‘contracting spiral’, consisting of a theme repeated ten times, each time exponentially faster. It starts out almost as a meditation, you’re waiting for the whale sounds and mantras to commence, while finding your inner peace. Gradually the music turns into a crazy frenzy, with each new sequence announced by the jingling sound of the two grand pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart. I certainly felt an almost visual sensation of space contracting and rippling over time.


All photos (c) Barbican

The use of drums and percussions is setting new standards, with many instruments on stage that you hardly ever see. The six percussionists were constantly moving back and forth between the instruments at their command, sometimes producing sounds hardly noticeable to the human ear, at other times re-enacting the stage show of an early-days Misfits concert with all the rage and violence you can imagine.

A strange side-effect of the piece having been tailored to Dudamel is that Dudamel has much less space to play his magic and is to a large extent limited to being an effective executor, focused on delivering precisely what his instructions prescribe. However, this orchestra, always ranked in the top ten, often top five of the world, is perfectly able to deliver. Apparently, the news only got out earlier today that their U.S. recording of Sustain is up for two Grammys, for Best Orchestral Performance and for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, well done there.

So after the magnificent Sustain, everyone was uber-excited about Bruckner. I should mention that I grew up in a street called Brucknerstrasse as the son of a father who adored Bruckner more than anyone (certainly more than his son; in all honesty, Bruckner is probably slightly more brilliant than I am, so no hard feelings there). I grew to hate Bruckner from a very early stage. Despite the fact that I was a decent trumpet player (I played trumpet in the marching band of my battalion while doing the obligatory military service, for example), I never much liked brass in classical music (I do like it in acid jazz, hip hop, and jazz). Bruckner clearly couldn’t have cared less, because nearly all of his music is very heavy on the brass, much to my disliking. In short, the fact that I don’t like a rendition of a Bruckner symphony doesn’t in itself have much meaning, I never do.


This rendition was so ignorant and detrimental to Bruckner’s intentions, so ruthlessly untruthful and outright repulsive, that it is hard to think of a worse-ever rendition of this already horrific Austrian romanticist.

Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major, the “Romantic” (in the 1878-1880 Nowak edition) is a giant of a symphony, requiring everything from subtle timidity to all-out fire-at-will brassacre. Dudamel’s interpretation was lacking a lot on the subtle parts and completely overdoing the climaxes with ear-piercing volume and lack of definition.

Overall, it was still a great evening of classical music and no doubt we’ll be queuing for tickets again as soon as his next visit to town has been confirmed.

Looking for more reviews? Check out our posts about the restaurants Beso in London, Her Name is Han in New York, the Strasbourg food tour we did, Vauxwall Climbing Centre, quad biking, about carbon off-setting, and our escape room experience.

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