Learning to Hate: A Story Whose Relevance Reaches Beyond the West Side

West Side Story

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo: my iPhone

At the climax of West Side Story, Maria brandishes the gun that killed her star-crossed lover, Tony, and declares that, “We all killed him,” because of the unbroken cycle of violence and hate between the two rival gangs.

“I can kill now,” Maria screams, “Because I hate now too!”

When they programmed a concert performance of West Side Story for this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, the LA Phil didn’t know the shows would take place at a moment when Americans are having an earnest, frank discussion about race, guns, power, and fear of The Other in the wake of a series of tragic murders by and of police. But as rapper Jay Z said when he released the song “Spiritual,” (written in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but not finished or released until last week) sadly, “this issue will always be relevant.”

And that’s the problem with America, the problem with this planet. These kinds of stories will always be relevant. West Side Story, performed Thursday night by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, felt chillingly relevant. The story of learning how to hate a human being simply because of who he or she is was relevant when Shakespeare told it in the 1590s, it was relevant when Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim told it in the 1950s, and it will be relevant when the next writer, composer, or filmmaker tells it in the future.

Thursday’s performance, for me, had the urgency of the moment on its side. Three hours before the downbeat, President Obama had gathered law enforcement officers and advocates together with activists for #BlackLivesMatter and families of victims of police violence for a public conversation about how each side viewed The Other and how we could find common ground on this contentious battleground. As he did in his speech at the police officers’ memorial service in Dallas, President Obama voiced his optimism, saying, “Nobody’s more hopeful than me. I’m Mr. Hope when it comes to these issues. I’ve said from the start that we are not as divided as we seem.”

Those words, and more, from the President’s town hall meeting were ringing in my ears as Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil started playing Leonard Bernstein’s music. Considering the challenging circumstances of the Hollywood Bowl, the performance was remarkably well-executed. (The orchestra was set up in front of a raised area that acted as the stage for the actors–the regular stage of the Bowl functioned as an orchestra pit. The actors were miles away from the conductor; sight-lines seemed awkward for the actors and some of the musicians of the orchestra. Hearing one another is always difficult on a stage that large.)

Still, it was well-executed…and also fun. The audience was primed to be swept up in this familiar show. They snapped along with “Cool,” and shouted out at the appropriate times during “Mambo.” For purely nostalgic reasons, I was super-excited to hear Dudamel and the LA Phil do “Mambo,” because that’s the first piece of music I ever saw Dudamel conduct. (You know, that 2007 performance from the BBC Proms with the dancing, trumpet-spinning Bolivares.)

Solea Pfeiffer, making her Hollywood Bowl debut, was stunning as Maria. As Tony, Jeremy Jordan was solid, but played the character a bit on the smarmy side. Drew Foster brought the house down as Action in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a song which is more than just comic relief–it’s the song which points us back to the thesis of the entire show and forward to the climactic moment with Maria brandishing the gun.

In “Gee, Officer Krupke,” Action looks to everyone else as he searches for a reason as to why he’s “so bad…psychologically disturbed…a mess…sociologically sick…a jerk…no good…no damn good.” He blames his parents, society, the system, anyone but himself.

Later, after Action and a group of Jets assault Anita in the drug store and she leaves to go set the fatal flaw in motion, Doc asks Action, “What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make this world lousy!”

To which, Action replies, “That’s the way we found it, Doc.”

For Maria, however, it’s no one’s fault but her own. In the end, gun drawn, Maria owns her own hate. She says, “We all killed him,” but she includes herself in that indictment. In so doing, Maria accepts responsibility for the perpetuation of the story. “I can kill now, because I hate now too!”

Tony’s death is not the tragedy. That Tony and Maria are never able to realize their love for each other is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that we will continue to learn to hate The Other. The tragedy is that the story will go on.

Ultimately, Maria lays her weapon down, but Leonard Bernstein’s music suggests she doesn’t lay her hate down with it. The upper strings and woodwinds try to resolve the drama with a reprise of the theme from “Somewhere,” but the lower strings and timpani punctuate this with the dissonance of a tri-tone. The interval that was designated as “dangerous” by medieval composer Guido d’Arezzo and referred to as “The Devil in Music” in the 18th century is the interval that punctuates the conclusion and attempted resolution of this story.

Hate wins in West Side Story. But in life, love must win. Otherwise, we keep telling this same tragic story over and over and over again. Accepting responsibility is a start. Maria doesn’t say the Jets made her hate or the cops made her hate or the culture of gang violence made me hate. She just says, “I hate.”

When we recognize hate of The Other in ourselves, how do we respond? Do we blame someone or something else like Action did? Or do we accept responsibility like Maria did? We all fail. We all hate. It’s what happens next that counts.

Conductors Conducting the Climax of Mahler 2

The Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler is the biggest, most epic symphonic statement since Beethoven’s 9th. It’s subtitled “Resurrection,” and the work climaxes with the words:

O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

Mahler wrote the text himself and set it to the most glorious, heaven-storming music that had ever been written.

Here’s what it sounds like:

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No doubt, Bernstein is the best. He seems to be genuinely reacting to the ecstasy of the moment. As you can imagine, such an epic musical and poetic statement elicits an incredible amount of podium histrionics from various conductors. A close second to Bernstein, in terms of raw emotional choreography, is Sir Simon Rattle.

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You’d think Gustavo Dudamel would have a similarly crazy reaction to this music–after all, one of the great inspirations in his life is Leonard Bernstein–but here, he is remarkably restrained.

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Oh, sure, he’s still into the music, but not with his trademark unbridled passion.

If there’s one general consistency throughout conductors’ interpretations of Mahler 2, it’s that the mouth must be open. From typically reserved Claudio Abbado…

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…to the exuberance of Zubin Mehta.

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Valery Gergiev (not famous for being a Mahler conductor) tries to keep his mouth closed…and, it seems, choke back some tears.

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Myung-whun Chung has ice in his veins and wields his baton with the precision of a surgeon.

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Pierre Boulez has steely resolve that borders on stoicism. (Would you expect anything else from Pierre Boulez?)

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Mariss Jansons wins the award for Best Facial Expression.

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Christoph Eschenbach wins the award for Best Head Movement.

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And Riccardo Chailly wins the award for Most Deranged.

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So, there you have it. The many faces of the ecstasy and bliss that is Mahler’s Second Symphony. Now, go listen to a complete performance of it. I suggest this one:

11 Conductors Who Are Doing Something Else While Conducting

1. Herbert von Karajan grumpily churning the butter.

Karajan Churning Butter

 

2. Valery Gergiev mostly likely suffering from food poisoning.

Gergiev Has Food Poisoning

 

3a. Gustavo Dudamel suddenly noticing there’s a scorpion on his hand.

Dudamel Scorpion

3b. Gustavo Dudamel touches a hot stove and refuses to learn that he will get burned.

Dudamel Hot Stove

 

4. Pierre Boulez brings you the glass of wine you ordered which he totally disapproves of.

Boulez as a Waiter

 

5. Otto Klemperer does not want anyone disturbing his nap. Even Beethoven.

Klemperer Falling Asleep

 

6a. Esa-Pekka Salonen surfing while high, dude.

Salonen Surfing High

6b. Esa-Pekka Salonen is an angry Atlanta Braves fan.

Salonen Tomahawk Chop

 

7. Carlos Kleiber casually pulling a tiny baby out of his pocket.

Kleiber Baby Pocket

 

8a. Sir Simon Rattle: sex machine.

Rattle Watching

8b. Sir Simon Rattle reenacting a few tricks from his Vegas magic show.

Rattle Magic Tricks

 

9. Charles Munch talking to himself and not caring what you think.

Munch Talks to Himself

 

10a. Leonard Bernstein trying and failing to keep his heart from exploding.

Bernstein Ectsasy

 

10b. Leonard Bernstein looking like someone who’s really happy about stabbing his wife.

Bernstein Stabbing

 

11. Stanisław Skrowaczewski is genuinely moved by the music.

Skrowaczewski is Moved

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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Coming to a Concert Hall Near You: A Zombie Apocalypse

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‘Tis the season for new season announcements from orchestras across the United States and already there’s a trend: dead composers. Now, I listen to dead people as much as the next guy, but I also love new music. Part of what makes classical music so great is that the new stuff builds on, refines, and yes sometimes obliterates the traditions of the past.

Aversion to new music is a relatively new phenomenon for classical music. Gone are the days of people complaining that Mozart was playing a concerto he had already played somewhere else before…or publisher Fritz Simrock putting artificially high opus numbers on Dvořák’s, Brahms’, and others’ works to pass them off as the newest (and therefore best) thing yet from these composers.

So…how are the 2015-16 seasons shaping up so far? Of the orchestras that used to be known as The Big Five (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia), three have announced. And the numbers don’t favor composers who have yet to kick the bucket. Continue reading

About the other night…

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This is not a review of Gustavo Dudamel and LA Phil’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Hollywood Bowl last Thursday night. Just a few thoughts about my experience:

  • When the summer season was released, I was skeptical of hearing Verdi’s Requiem at the Hollywood Bowl. When I arrived at the Bowl Thursday evening, I was still skeptical. It’s too powerful a work to work outdoors amongst the clattering of wine bottles and the chattering of police helicopters overhead. Inevitably, I surmised, the people next to me would reach for the pâté just as tenor Vittorio Grigolo reached the most poignant moment of his solo in the Ingemisco. I was wrong. It totally worked…and I wish I could explain why. Because it shouldn’t have.
  • Continue reading

Postcard from London: Discover Dudamel

Yesterday was a moment several months in the making for the 10 traveling musicians from YOLA (Youth Orchestra LA). It’s why they wrote two essays, gave an interview, and played an audition just for the opportunity to come on this trip to London. Yesterday was the rehearsal and performance of the Discover Dudamel orchestra at the Barbican Centre, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel himself.

Dudamel bounded on stage, a bundle of energy even though he had just come from an interview that went late and had barely had time to grab a snack for lunch. He surveyed the large group of mostly high-school age kids, paused to count the number players in the flute section, “How many?” He asked. “Six flutes? I love this: Venezuelan-style,” referring to the giant orchestras of several hundred he has conducted countless times with El Sistema.

“Okay, let’s play,” Dudamel said quickly, and raised his arms for the downbeat of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture. But there was an impish look in his eye. He turned to the concertmaster and asked, “Romeo and Juliet?” She nodded. “Prokofiev, right?” Dudamel said. “No, Berlioz?” Giggling from the orchestra. “Oh…I remember,” Dudamel said, grinning. “Tchaikovsky.”

Downbeat.

Continue reading