The gala audience gathered for Sunday night’s concert at Harpa had come to see two freshly minted superstars of the classical scene, each with a compelling back story.
Dazzlingly gifted Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst is in the process of transforming his instrument—long associated with high school marching bands, Dixieland festivities and cartoon sound tracks—into a musical protagonist worthy of the solo spotlight. Gustavo Dudamel’s meteoric rise to fame as Music Director of the LA Philharmonic, as well as principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony that he conducted that night, has made him an international media sensation, and an inspiration to the young and underprivileged youth in the Venezuelan El Sistema programme where he himself got his start. His refusal to take solo bows and his ability to conduct the major works of the repertoire from memory have earned him the respect and admiration of players and audiences alike.
Neither of these artists disappointed their audience. In fact, each managed to astonish in the most difficult way possible: with soft playing, and even with silence.
The concert opened with an intelligently crafted new work structured around the cross-play of orchestral tone colours by Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist, a 30th birthday present from the orchestra to Dudamel.
Fröst followed in a performance of the Mozart A major clarinet concerto which gave life and living breath to each phrase of the piece, and in which we heard new sounds from an instrument we thought we knew. What astonished most were the softest passages that pulled the ear into a creamy world of sound colour few in the hall thought even possible. Emblematic of Fröst’s intense involvement in the score was his performing stance, knees bent in the classical pose of the goat-footed satyr playing his Pan pipes.
Dudamel’s task in taking on the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony was formidable, posing all the interpretive difficulties of Late Romanticism itself: intense personal introspection, at expansive length, a combination that risks tipping into either Victorian melodrama or the tedious ramblings of a drunk friend crying into his beer.
With careful attention to the pulse and emotional potential of each phrase Dudamel achieved that pathos which gives this symphony its name, the ‘Pathétique’, and no more convincingly than in the silence that followed its dying last notes, a silence that lasted a full minute, in which no one dared even breathe in the immense hall.