Posted on March 14, 2011


If I could have scripted a live concert experience from beginning to end for someone who had never been to a classical music concert before, that concert would have looked very similar to yesterday’s “LAPhil Live” performance by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, broadcast live from Disney Concert Hall and beamed into movie theaters all over the U.S. and Canada (via Fathom Events). It had everything. I’ve been to relatively few orchestra concerts in my life compared to most of the people that probably went to see this, but for me, that was probably the most spectacular classical music concert I’ve ever seen. For $20 a head at a theater in Denver, here’s what we got:

  • Tchaikovsky’s three Shakespeare-inspired compositions (Hamlet, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet)
  • The star power of four notable Hollywood actors acting out famous scenes from each of the three plays that the music was inspired by, leading perfectly into each piece of music (the actors performed roaming all over the concert hall and even onto the stage where the musicians were)
  • Effective lighting design that enhanced the music at critical moments
  • Symphony in surround-sound through a killer sound system (at least at the theater I was in at the Colorado Mills Mall)
  • Dramatic, powerful performances of each piece by one of the world’s best orchestras
  • The conducting and personal charisma, passion and heart of the one and only Gustavo Dudamel

This was my first time to watch Dudamel conduct a full program. Until today, I had only seen clips and bits and pieces of him on the podium (bits and pieces that really impressed me). Dude is just flat-out exceptional. Like LeBron James (back when people didn’t hate him so much), Dudamel had an incredible amount of hype surrounding him when he showed up on the scene, and in my opinion he lives up to and exceeds the hype as a conductor. Just like LeBron did (’til everyone started hating him). When Dudamel spoke, he always spoke in emotional terms, and never in annoying music-speak. I love it when musicians do that, and I’ve gotta believe that his words can connect with the general public if given the chance. I felt reaffirmed for casting him in my classical music Super Bowl commercial.

For me, one of the marks of a great conductor is that when you look into their eyes (during romantic music especially), you don’t see music, and you don’t see them thinking; you see Expression. Emotion. Something special being communicated between conductor and orchestra; between performers and audience. A good conductor lets you know what’s coming in the music; an exceptional conductor lets you know what you’re about to feel as the music builds and when it arrives somewhere fantastic. Again, I know I’m relatively new to this game, but I’ve never seen anyone do it like The Dude. The overwhelming majority of the time, Dudamel is so engrossed in the music, he looks almost like a man possessed, but still manages to communicate a wide array of emotions in the midst of his intensity. I think there were only two times that I saw him look like he was thinking about something other than the music (and that was in HD with a camera zoomed in on his grill most of the time), and I saw him only give one truly lousy cue that had an audible effect (the lack of togetherness on the last pizzicato note of The Tempest was, in my opinion, his fault). But who cares? In Dudamel’s eyes, you never see the score. You see the human element, and you see it in spite of all the baggage surrounding him that the pomp, the suit, and the Musical Pharisaism bring into the classical music scene. Now that is impressive.

The Shakespeare actors and actress were, I thought, superb. Like most people, my first introduction to Shakespeare was in high school, and even though I had a teacher that I loved, I hated Shakespeare and did my best to avoid him ever since. I’m not really a good reader anyway, so reading Shakespeare was almost as hard as reading equations in Algebra 2, and made about as much sense (now I’m really showing my sheer lack of brain power, but hey. This is an Authentic cadence. Judge me if you like.). But when those actors acted out those scenes, I got it. Probably for the first time. They made me want to go put a bunch of Shakespeare DVDs on my Netflix in an effort to better appreciate what I’ve been ignoring for so long. And the way it segued perfectly into the music might have been my favorite part of the concert, which segues perfectly into my final point.

Two things I’ve never understood about symphonic classical music concerts:

  1. When there are two pieces on the program, the heavier/more-difficult-to-listen-to/piece is pretty much always first, and the less-demanding piece for the audience’s ears is usually last
  2. so many concerts start right in with the music with nothing between the opening round of applause at the first note

When you come in to a classical music concert, there’s no telling what you’ve been through that day. Maybe you were at work. Maybe you had a crazy day at home with the kids. Whatever it is, I’d be willing to bet that for most people, it doesn’t involve listening to heady classical music, so to be slapped upside the head with it the second the concert starts is, in my opinion, less than ideal. Even to me, a professional classical musician, if I’ve spent the day listening to Lecrae or Trip Lee or local Denver hip hop artists like Mr. Midas, the sound of classical music is a shock to my system, and I’d like for there to be some kind of buffer between the opening applause and the music that can help focus my mind. Having those actors act out those scenes from the Shakespeare plays before the music was a perfect example of how to do that effectively, and have it be done without music. There must be a million ways to do this. Some conductors talk, which is fine as long as you don’t ramble and say stupid stuff. Silence can also be effective. But there is so much room for all kinds of creativity in those moments before the first note of a concert that never gets explored. Sure starting right in with the music would be cool sometimes, but I think we should be constantly searching for a variety of  ways to “cleanse the aural palette” of our audiences so that they aren’t “transported by the music” (one of my least favorite classical music cliches), but rather they can be “transported” to a place where they’re ready to listen before the music even starts. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about this in the comment section.

Bottom line, it was an awesome concert and a great experience. I’ll definitely be checking out more of these next year when my schedule permits. I just hope the ten other people in the theater with my wife and I enjoyed it as much as we did.

I skipped posting my weekly post last Friday because of the earthquake in Japan, so in addition to this post, I’ll also post this Friday, so I hope you’ll come back for that.

Keep the prayers and donations going for Japan, everyone, and until Friday, you stay classy. And do unto others as you’d have them to do you.

Posted in: Music