I've heard and seen (on TV) Gustavo Dudamel four or five times now, both with his Venezualan youth orchestra doing the Latin program, and with mainstream professional orchestras doing standard repertoire. The impression I've had so far is that Dudamel is somebody who clearly has the talent to get what he wants out of an orchestra, has an acute ear, but is also one of those maestros who often confuses "exciting and interesting" with "fast and loud".
His interpretation of Berlioz's ¡Sinfonia Fantastica! - as I will refer to it from now on - pretty much confirmed all of that, except he seems to have improved a bit in the "too fast" department.
It's funny: here I am all proud of myself for being so open minded about Bach with drums, and then I hear something which makes me shout angrily at a pair of speakers because someone messed around with Berlioz. And Dudamel didn't even add extra instruments. What he did do was make the fine musicians of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra sound more like the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra.
The Berlioz was the second half of the program, and before they went back to the stage, they broadcast a brief interview with Dudamel recorded before the concert. He was very enthusiastic about the work (and who isn't?), calling it "crazy music", and also discussing the influence of opium. Since this piece is played so very often, he said, he wanted to find new things in it, find new ways to play it so the musicians didn't get bored. He spoke of finding new "colors" and ways of expressing the music.
Sounds good so far. Then the music started. The opening sequence was quite good, with nice tone and shaping of dynamics and the lazy, descending figures. The upper strings played a very appropriate strong-weak in their little "sigh" just before the Plus vite, and this slight exaggeration of the written dynamic markings worked very well. Dudamel lets the fast bit speak for itself, then uses lots of extra rubato to evoke a waltz-like feeling to the ascending runs in the lower strings capped of by a high long note in the violings, with woodwinds chugging along in gentle triplets in the background. I don't mind that they lean way, way too heavily on that note.
For a while the interpretation is a pretty straightforward, average performance by a very good orchestra. Then some different colors start to drift in, first in the violins. There's an odd swell at the end of the longer notes, and the vibrato starts to sound a bit...lazy. Soon, things start to sound very Spanish, very Latin. It starts to infect the flutes soon enough, then all the woodwinds. Eventually, it all starts to sound very decidely like the music Dudamel plays with his Venezuelan youth orchestra. He found some new colors, alright.
The string playing is much more swoopy, and instead of dreaminess we got wakefulness in a Latin dance hall. The rest of the movement wasn't much better. The conductor didn't really create tension where necessary, and didn't seem to see a few spots that required more of it.
I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow description, but I will mention a few highlights. In the second movement, Dudamel very obviously had the harpist pluck higher up on the string, creating an entirely different color from what Berlioz expected. It sounded, in fact, like an arpa llanera. That lazy swoopiness, with the wide vibrato, was back with a vengence, and I thought I might even hear a cuatro in the background. This was essentially a joropo, and not the waltz that Berlioz was envisioning when he wrote this. It was less opium dream than real live party, but the kind that I don't think Berlioz would have recognized.
In the third movement, the pastoral colors were those of Venezuela and Columbia, not of Isère in southeastern France. Berlioz loved his countryside dearly, and had certain colors in mind when he wrote this music. The least the conductor can do is meet him halfway. Dudamel tweaks the balances of strings and winds just enough that, combined with the string phrasing, it's at times distractingly Latin. The thing is that, other than a nice touch with the english horn and timpani at the end, he doesn't have much else to say about the entire movement, as otherwise it sort of plods along.
All I will say about the March to the Scaffold is that he actually didn't rush much at all, and chose a more deliberate pace to create a bit of tension. But the moment the head gets chopped off was pretty wet and unimaginative. I guess that's Dudamel's way of finding a new way to express the music. "A grotesque thump is what everyone expects to hear, so I'll do it differently!" And what happened to all those piano markings Berlioz put in eslewhere? Too many were the same as the mezzo fortes.
The colors start out just right in the final movement, but gradually those colors from a different continent creep in now and again. The bells - which sounded great, by the way - seemed to bring Dudamel back to the soundworld of the composer, and, fortunately, things remained there for the most part. Balances are tricky in this movement anyway, and I have to say he navigated them pretty well otherwise. Of course, it was fast and loud when appropriate (Berlioz wrote the bass drum part for himself, so it ought to be), although Dudamel did gloss over a few details. He let the fast and loud music speak for itself to conclude the performance.
All in all, it was just too much, and the foreign accents tended to detract from the music Berlioz wrote, rather than enhance or shed new light on it. This was less inspired visionary and more mischievous schoolboy. Orchestras seem to love playing for him, though. I guess it's not boring, and he's efficient in rehearsal.
It should be available for a few days through BBC's iPlayer here.
Otherwise, some great interpretations of Symphonie Fantastique can be found here, here, and, for an interpretation by a conductor who really does find some great new colors through which to hear Berlioz's music, here.