Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gustavo Dudamel finishes his first tour with the L.A. Philharmonic

Dedicated to Gustavo Coronel

Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan wunderkind that made it to director of the LA Philharmonic before he reached 30 years of age has just finished his first tour of the US.  The critics are not bad but not that good.  Unfortunately I am not surprised.

Dudamel is a product of the very successful youth orchestral system in Venezuela, a country who has always taken its musicians seriously, though demanding entertainment rather than weight.  In fact it is rather a paradox that a country where the infamous reggaeton is king today that such a cultural gem manages to survive, a perfect example of parallel countries if any.  Indeed, the youth orchestra system (also extended to jails) is one of the very few things that Chavez has not dared tamper with, yet.  The international reputation it gives Venezuela in the cultural spheres and the talent of its creator Jose Antonio Abreu to pass for chavista when needed has preserved the movement for the time being even if it is not as vigorous as it used to be before the Huns arrived in 1999.

Dudamel is indeed a product of that system in that he has inherited its brio but also its superficiality up to a point.  After all he has had the talent and the discipline to make it to the top orchestras of the world but as the critics pointed out (the Philadelphia Inquirer was the most negative) he lacks cohesion in running the orchestra, and even if not specifically mentioned, he suffers an implied lack of depth.  What he brings in is exuberance and excitement, which might be what classical music needs the most in this times of financial trouble....

I suspect that the problem is that Dudamel went too high too fast and that his appointment in L.A., if he is not careful, could result in a certain relegation to the pack.

I have been an early supporter of the different orchestras of the "Sistema", religiously attending performances in the late 70 ies among the gravel that the Teresa Carreño music center was shedding as it was being built.  I remember well these first enthusiastic concerts at the Felix Ribas hall of the Orquesta  Juvenil Simon Bolivar as sometimes construction workers were hammering who knows what somewhere else.  During my long years in the US I always tried to attend one of their concerts during my vacations home.  Who knows, I might even have seen one day a young Dudamel playing his violin in some performance.

Returning to Venezuela I was not anymore in Caracas and thus slowly I lost the habit.  Though considering the traffic and security concerns of Caracas, going at night to the symphony looks more and more like an expedition.  Still I managed to see Dudamel a couple of times.  Indeed, I sensed his talent, no question about it, even though the orchestra was not what he deserved.  That is not the fault of the musicians: in Venezuela they simply cannot afford the quality instruments the great US orchestra have.  And also youth and enthusiasm cannot always compensate for experience and trade.

I suspect that the main problem of Dudamel is that too many people want a piece of him and as such he has not been able to focus on what great directors are all about.

When I lived in the States I went as often to the symphony as my meager resources afforded me.  The best years where those in Baltimore when I befriended a co worker who was married with one of the main violins.  They knew I really liked the stuff and that I really liked the Baltimore Symphonic work.  Quite often when they knew it was not sold out, they let me in through the artists entrance to seek an empty seat (which did not stop me from having my season's subscription in due form, a fact they appreciated).  I know every corner of the Meyerhoff.

I have been able to listen to the great ones; the three of them, in my humble opinion, are the ones from Boston, Chicago and New York plus the Met one (though I thought that the Baltimore one did not have much to envy the big names).  I remember the excellence of Seiji Ozawa with Baroque and XX century  music while he sucked at the romantic repertoire (you need to be a Westerner to be good in that one, I am afraid).  And James Levine Gotterdamerung and Otello will remain two of my strongest musical moments ever.  I managed to see once Georg Solti with the Chicago on tour but I never fell in love with the New York Philharmonic and Avery Fisher Hall.  I suppose the shadow of the Met was just too strong for me and I preferred to scrap my scarce dollars to watch operas from the only seats I could afford, highest and most distant ones (one time I was so much on the side and high that I could only see the legs of the Tenor in a not so memorable performance anyway of some bel canto).

The problem of Dudamel is not the LA Philharmonic who is a good orchestra though I suspect one with less demands than the ones East Coast as glitz permeates everything in Los Angeles.  His problem is not that he tries to encompass too much repertory, falling to the trap that contemporary composers must be promoted regardless of their output quality.  Many of the recent great directors have directed all from Monteverdi to Gorecky.  But all have made a specialty somewhere which made them great.  I have the nagging suspicion that Dudamel has not given much thought about that (and promoting Latin Music as he did at a recent concert which included Helen Hunt is not what I have in mind).

Dudamel needs to focus on something he wants his name associated with.  A period, a composer, not just an area.He needs to demand more from himself so he can demand more from his audience. That he is director of a top orchestra (in the 5 to 10th US position) does not exempt him of the exercise. Only though this he will get the insight he needs to explore pretty much everything else he wants in the repertoire.  That is, of course, if he aims for more than the Venezuelan superficial glamour that is valued as a quality here....

If I may dare give him a piece of advice I would suggest that he works for a few years on Haydn, in particular his London Symphonies.  They do not have the dash of the Mozart ones perhaps, nor the emotion of the Romantic warhorses, but they seem to me to be best suited to focus the wild enthusiasm of Dudamel by teaching him tasteful restraint, something essential to avoid falling in the hysteria of some pieces like the Pathetic of Tchaikovsky for which Dudamel was panned.  I think Dudamel would be uniquely suited to bring back lively to the forefront Haydn, a great composer that has been rather neglected lately.  They might be mismatched in temperament but if anyone can make shine Haydn it would be Dudamel and if any composer can focus Dudamel intuition, force him to understand the essence of smoothness in musical transitions it is Haydn (I have in mind the E and B flat symphonies of the London set).

(Post written listening to Beethoven Triple concerto and Brahms double one).


  1. Thank you Daniel for this very intelligent and shrewd piece on Dudamel.I agree wiith you that he might have got a bit spoiled by the enthusiastic reviews in Europe and Latin America. This tour of his you mention is the really first acid test of his young career.I cannot disagree with you in that directing Haydn could provide him with the discipline and finesse he might be wanting but I sense that in the end he will be remembered as the exotic conductor of the great sounds in music, the territory of rythym and melody a la Ginastera or Marquez and of some grandiose works like Mahler's symphonies, rather than the precision of the pre-romantics.

  2. You read my mind.I was thinking about Dudamel since yesterday when after browsing through some facebook pics of a friend of mine, I saw her daughter photographed with Dudamel maybe 9 or 10 times, underneath of which were written comments like " you're so lucky to be next to him",or " wow, I envy you" etc etc.

    In an instant I thought, "how odd that people fawned so, as though he were a rock star and not a serious musician.How unbecoming is this excessive fawning."

    No doubt he is brilliant, and amazing,but he is still young and still learning how to channel his instincts.He is very instinctive, this is good, because instinct gives him musical and performing power.Power does move mountains after all.

    I have heard it said that he gets an orchestra to play as if they are discovering the music for the very first time.This is a gift of the Gods to be able to see or hear something as though you are seeing or hearing it for the first time.

    The temptation to play fast or exciting passionate music for an audience is great.The temptation to rest on instinct and passion is understandable especially for the young.However it is important for every artist to temper,and discipline as well.If not eventually this leads to a lack of depth and only half interpretations.

    It is also good to remember that a performance is a gestalt at the interface between the artist and the audience.If the audience overreacts, it creates a difficult situation for the performer.There is so much excitement out there about him that he might feel he has to live up to 'expectation' instead of having the freedom to develop in different ways.

  3. Dudamel is involved in establishing the system in LA and around the US. I think that's pretty exciting.

  4. Gustavo

    Contrary to some's opinion, Mahler might be big sound but it does not work if you do not have precision. Or rather, you are too blown away by the big sound to notice that a lot of things do not fit. That is why I suspect I do not care much for Mahler. I cannot get engaged in his music the way I can get engaged in, say, Bruckner or Shostakovitch, to name those that frame him in time and who also practiced some form of big sound.

    I have been to several performances of Mahler including, in Baltimore, the symphony of thousand and I was nonplussed. Only the # 1 and #4 of his symphonies do appeal to me and are the only recordings of Mahler I was driven to own. Yes, I know, call me a country pumpkin if you wish...

    I still think that a conductor reveals more his/her greatness directing pieces such as Mozart last piano concerto, Sibelius #4, Debussy's La Mer or Appalachian Spring. Mahler swallows everyone live and people love it too much to notice.

  5. firepiggette

    Good point. From what I have seen Dudamel does engage his orchestra and the audience. It is almost magical. Even a lousy orchestra starts sounding in a believable fashion. But it could become tiresome and one day suddenly become a monumental flop. That happens a lot with Opera singers who have a striking early careers and then are forgotten as quickly. Or stick to a limited repertoire like Pavarotti.

  6. Daniel,

    'Country pumpkins' are cute but it is
    'country Bumpkin' :)

  7. Back in 1997 or maybe 1998, my wife and I made one of our several trips to Merida. One of the highlights was a concert at the university there, with as I recall a guest conductor from Germany and a musician from Julliard. It cost about twenty-five cents each. That, plus about a week in the surrounding country side and a trek to Los Nevados, caused us seriously to consider making our home there.

    Thank Zeus, Athena, Neptune and all of the other gods that we didn't; the garlic flavored ice cream sold at a ice cream parlor in Merida did not influence our ultimate decision not to do so. We settled instead in the highlands of Panama.

  8. In spite of all the differences,
    Dudamel and Abreu are reminding me more and more of this:

    There is a moment when they have to calculate what is affecting more the long term chances of all those young musicians.

    I don't know if I am exagerating.


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