Here’s the thing about Gustavo Dudamel…

DVORAK - NEW WORLD SYMPHONY

I’ve never particularly cared for the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, but for me it has only ever been the thing that happens in between the serene beauty of the slow movement and the Jaws-like introduction to the finale. The third movement is fine. I’ve just never loved it.

Until Sunday afternoon in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. That’s when the LA Phil (not necessarily known as a great Dvořák orchestra), conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (not necessarily know as a great Dvořák conductor), caused me to completely change my mind about the third movement of the New World Symphony. It was the final performance of the orchestra’s two-week, four-city Asia tour (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo) and maybe there was a little extra electricity on stage because the musicians would soon be Goin’ Home. Maybe morale was high because two days before, Gustavo Dudamel had surprised the orchestra with the announcement that he would be their music director through 2021-22–a contract extension of three additional years. Whatever the reason, on Sunday, the third movement sparkled and danced. I finally got it.

I think I also finally found an answer to a question about Gustavo Dudamel that we’ve been asking ever since he rose to prominence after winning the Gustav Mahler Conducting Prize in Bamberg, Germany 11 years ago. The following year, Dudamel made his U.S. debut conducting the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl. A year after that came his debut in Walt Disney Concert Hall–a performance during which Esa-Pekka Salonen leaned over and whispered in his wife Jane’s ear, “That’s the next music director of the LA Phil.” Shortly thereafter, Deborah Borda went on a secret (now famous) series of scouting missions, attending Dudamel’s performances around the world.

One year later, on Monday, April 9, 2007, the announcement came: Esa-Pekka Salonen would step down as music director of the LA Phil and his successor would be the “up-and-comer” Gustavo Dudamel. I remember that day vividly: the press were gathered on stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Deborah Borda, Salonen, and Dudamel were there. Dudamel’s English was good, but not great, and he answered a lot of questions in Spanish. Rich Capparela–then of K-Mozart–got the laugh of the press conference when he directed a question to Esa-Pekka Salonen and asked if he would “please answer in Finnish.” The late, irascible but beloved critic Alan Rich chided LA Phil management for not giving former executive director Ernest Fleischmann enough credit for his role in the discovery of Gustavo Dudamel. (Fleischmann, along with Salonen, was on the jury of the Mahler competition in Bamberg.)

Salonen Dudamel hug

As Gail Eichenthal and I roamed the stage afterwards, conducting one-on-one interviews for KUSC, the question everyone struggled to answer was this one: “What is it about his conducting that sets Gustavo Dudamel apart from others? What makes him so great?” Esa-Pekka Salonen fumbled with this question, comparing Dudamel to another young prodigious talent (Mozart) and also calling Dudamel “a conducting animal,” which was intended as a compliment, but still sounds strange eight years later. LA Phil violinist Mitch Newman talked about the instant chemistry the orchestra had with Dudamel and the ease of musical communication they had back-and-forth. Deborah Borda said hiring the then 26-year-old who hadn’t conducted a professional orchestra until winning that Mahler Prize three years prior wasn’t a risk because he had the right combination of charisma, passion, and deep musical knowledge. Most memorably, though, was Ernest Fleischmann’s answer to the “What makes Dudamel so great?” question. I can still hear his South African/British/German accent: “It’s difficult to say,” Fleischmann said, giving probably the most honest answer of the day.

Gustavo the Great

Indeed, it has been difficult to say what it is about Dudamel’s talent that is so special. Before his LA Phil tenure began, 60 Minutes ran a piece called Gustavo the Great which failed to answer the question why Gustavo is great. Dudamel’s first concert as LA Phil music director–¡Bienvenido Gustavo!, a free performance of Beethoven’s 9th at the Hollywood Bowl–was astonishing. A moment I’ll never forget. His first season was a honeymoon and Season 2 brought a maturation (sometimes painful) of his relationship with the LA Phil. The hiring was at first seen as a shrewd, brilliant move; then came the critical scrutiny. Hype, followed by backlash. (Before one of my interviews with a prominent conductor, his handlers told me explicitly: do *not* ask about Gustavo Dudamel–he does not like him, nor does he speak well of him.) It was like Trevor Noah, minus the racist/sexist Twitter jokes.

But even after critical equilibrium was attained, we still had no good answer for what makes Gustavo so great.

We tried. Some feeble attempts included:

  • His passion draws audiences into the performances
  • Exuberance, energy, excitement
  • He has a knack for orchestral coloring
  • A raw, unrefined approach to the music that brings out the essence of each score
  • He internalizes the music and recreates it so naturally

I’m guilty of employing (or deploying) all of these. In fairness, they are all *part* of the Gustavo Dudamel story, but not the whole story. Now, more than six years into his tenure as LA Philharmonic music director, I believe we are finally able to fully answer the question that initially stumped Deborah Borda, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ernest Fleischmann, 60 Minutes, and the rest of us.

The answer came Sunday afternoon at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall during the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Whenever I hear a performance in which Dudamel conducts standard repertoire, invariably I hear something new in the piece. Something I hadn’t heard before. This happens without fail, every single time. I don’t always like what I hear (e.g.: Tchaikovsky’s 5th), but liking something or not liking something isn’t the point of great art. Great art is supposed to make you think.

During the concert Sunday afternoon I got to thinking about why I was suddenly connecting with the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I was hearing new things all over the place (counter-melodies in the 2nd violins/violas, for example, that you’d miss if they weren’t there, but in Dudamel’s hands, you hear how vital they actually are to the music as a whole). But it’s a bigger picture than that. The job of a conductor is to be a conduit from the composer to the orchestra. Together, the orchestra and conductor then communicate their vision of a composer’s work to the audience. Most conductors can do this some of the time. Great conductors have more consistent success.

Not long ago, I was talking with Dudamel about how he studies scores, and he told me about his work as a teenager with El Sistema founder, José Antonio Abreu. In their conducting lessons, Abreu would emphasize the importance of knowing every minute detail of a piece of music. One of Abreu’s favorite drills, Dudamel told me, was to give the young conductor a measure number or other starting point and ask various questions about what’s in the score without looking at the score. For example: in measure 238 of the second movement, Abreu would ask Dudamel, what is the dynamic in the double basses? Do the violas have a sforzando there or an accent? Ritard or rallentando? (There’s a difference, you know.) That’s the level at which Dudamel internalizes all music: Beethoven, Mahler, Adams, everyone.

This kind of musical digestion allows Dudamel to consistently communicate, then convince the orchestra to execute his vision while also remaining fully open and flexible to deviations from that vision in the moment. It’s a rarefied combination of planning, purpose, and spontaneity. A lot of conductors and orchestras get the planning and purpose part right, but fail in the spontaneity department. That is, after all, the most challenging part of music-making. Getting 100+ musicians and conductor to all think the same way and all respond in an instant is nearly impossible. But Dudamel and the LA Phil are showing that not only can it be done, it can be done with great consistency. As a result, with Dudamel at the helm of the LA Phil, we find ourselves connected to the composer in most direct way possible–almost as if we’re hanging out with Dvořák as he’s writing his symphony. It’s music-making of intense immediacy. This is where Dudamel’s greatness lies.

For the first time in my life, I totally enjoyed the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I may not have completely fallen in love with it forever. But thanks to Dudamel and the LA Phil, at least now I understand it more fully. Throughout his tenure with the LA Philharmonic, we have heard flashes of what the Dudamel-LA Phil chemistry could be. Now, six years in, I believe we’re entering the peak. With his recent contract extension, Dudamel has ensured his tenure in LA will be longer than Bernstein’s was with the New York Philharmonic. Lucky us.

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