Photo: Kasskara / DG 2007
At last the shoe has dropped. Mark Swed
reports in today’s LA Times (and as Alex Ross
has pointed out as well) that the LA Philharmonic will lose Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director at the end of the 2008-2009 season to be replaced by Gustavo Dudamel. As painful as this is for those of us in LA, it is not unexpected. Salonen has almost single-handedly made the LA Phil a world class organization and probably the best orchestra in America. He has championed new music, and the organization has benefited from his own interests and work as a composer. He marshaled the group through its transition into its beautiful new home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But all good things must come to an end, and Salonen has made no secret about his competing interests and work responsibilities. When he renewed his contract with the Philharmonic last year, it was with the stipulation that further extensions beyond 2009 would be on a year to year basis, signaling that the end was probably more nigh than not. He will be greatly missed here in LA despite the report of his continued residence in the city.
Of course, the savvy LA Phil board new that this would be big and difficult news when it hit and that given the ongoing searches by several other major American orchestras for music directors, it would be best to settle things behind closed doors before airing everything in the town-square. And who can blame them? Resolving the question before the debate has even begun also spares everyone the weirdness seen in such places as New York with everybody and their brother including Lorin Maazel advocating for their favorite successors like some Medieval royal court jockeying for position after the death of a monarch.
The Phil’s choice is Dudamel, which certainly keeps with the organization's tradition of betting on young hot shots. Of course there are pluses and minuses. Dudamel is definitely untried in a number of departments. I’ve seen him conduct twice – last season with the LA Phil (which I wrote about here
) and in Berlin at the Staatsoper Unter der Linden under the direct observation and tutelage of Daniel Barenboin (see the same link for more details). Both performances were strong, but hardly evidence that he can maintain the commitment the organization has had to 20th century and contemporary work. Still, he is no slouch by any means. But it is also the risk of the unknown that brings change and if the organization is going to continue to be groundbreaking it cannot go the route of so many other orchestras in the US always relying on bringing over “European Masters” in their twilight years to dazzle and impress.
There is another benefit as well. As Swed rightly points out, Dudamel does have the opportunity to place greater emphasis on music from Latin and South America. The LA Phil and other arts organizations in the city have not always done the best job of recognizing the music and art from the non-European heritage of a majority of the people who live in this city. Maybe this will happen and maybe it won’t, but I’ll say this, I think the LA Phil has made a wise choice and it’s great that they’re continuing to take risks. It is what has made them what they are up till now and it is the only way to prevent stagnation.
Photo: Bill Viola, Tristan und Isolde, Act III
I know this is a long post, but let me add one more thing. This weekend will bring back the Philharmonic’s Tristan Project
: a semi-staged performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
with Salonen, Christine Brewer, Alan Woodrow, and Anne Sofie von Otter that is presented in conjunction with a massive video art installation from Bill Viola. Each act will be performed on a separate evening this weekend paired with a piece from Debussy, and the entire opera will be performed twice on the 18th and the 24th. After the LA performances, it will travel to NY where people would be foolish to miss it. This was probably the greatest moment I’ve had listening to the LA Phil under Salonen and it should not be missed. It is a fitting performance after this announcement in that in many ways Tristan
is also very much the beginning of the end. If you want to see Esa-Pekka Salonen and the legacy he is leaving as music director in Los Angeles, this is it in a nutshell, now’s your chance.