Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

I Told You So

May 24, 2010


I really wasn’t planning on saying anything more about the L.A. Philharmonic’s quasi-disastrous U.S. tour that concluded on Saturday in New York. (For the latest bad news, see Justin Davidson's review in New York magazine.) However, following Mark Swed’s further attempt at damage control in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, I feel compelled to open my mouth again. In his piece, Swed acknowledges that many major reviews of the L.A. Phil on tour have been negative, particularly with regards to the conducting skills of Gustavo Dudamel. (A "drubbing" is the term he used.) He also recognizes that while a “backlash” was not unexpected, the come-down after an unprecedented amount of positive attention was more than anticipated despite its inevitability. Of course, there is zero mention of the fact that Swed himself is one of the primary architects of this wave of hype and overstatement by his penning one breathless, unquestioning review of Dudamel’s performances here in L.A. after the next. The fact is that the sound of the orchestra is no worse now than it has been at any time during this 09/10 season under Dudamel. The difference now is that there are many more critical voices across the country who are unwilling to ignore the real problems that exist for the orchestra under Dudamel’s guidance at this time. Swed's rose-colored glasses seem welded to his head as he continues to minimize and look the other way from the music director’s penchant for histrionic dynamics and lack of precision.

Of course, the response to all of the criticism now that someone from out of town recognizes the emperor’s lack of clothing is for Swed to suggest that Dudamel is doing something groundbreaking and new by presenting old standards in ways that lie outside the expectations of listeners familiar with them. And, although he is clearly in the minority in his assessment of Dudamel's work to date, he goes further to imply that the conductor’s rock star status represents the future of classical music,
And all the excitement seemed too much for uptight Lincoln Center guards keeping me and mob at bay as we tried unsuccessfully to get backstage. Classical music isn’t supposed to be like this, which, of course, is what the reviews had been saying all along.
While this could be the dawning of a new age in Western Culture, I doubt Swed and a surprisingly small cohort of classical music writers at this point are the only ones to recognize it. I’ll agree that Dudamel is certainly bringing new faces and noisy crowds to concert halls unaccustomed to them. However, what Swed fails to see is that there is a difference between changing people’s minds about basic principles and riding on the wave of novelty. Dudamel won’t be the latest model forever. And when he isn’t, whether or not all those new-found listeners will really want to continue hearing Tchaikovsky or whatever else is on the bill seems rather unlikely to me. What we have here, in Gustavo Dudamel’s L.A. Philharmonic is a first, all right—America’s first “classical crossover” orchestra. An ensemble with a popular and enthusiastic following but which garners little respect or interest among people who actually like or follow classical music over the long term. Or, as my friend Jim says, we’ve got Lang Lang with a baton. Who cares what the L.A. Phil plays as long as Dudamel is on the podium? Who will care when he’s not?

So far what I have been saying about the Dud and the L.A. Phil all season long (and even before) is turning out to be closer to the truth than not. So what happens next? If I’m a betting man, the backlash will continue into a European tour next year. Meanwhile at home, as Dudamel becomes less of a topic of the moment, the predominantly novelty-seeking crowds will begin to thin out when they notice that the orchestra will be playing classical music most all of the time. How far civic boosterism will go in supporting this relationship beyond this contraction is anybody’s guess. Maybe things will change. I certainly hope they do. The orchestra has come so far in terms of its reputation to lose so much ground so quickly. Maybe Dudamel and the orchestra will reach some place that they're actually tolerable to listen to when playing together for more than 20 minutes at a stretch. And maybe, as Anthony Tommasini suggested in the New York Times on Friday, Dudamel will spend some time "immersing himself in the repertory."



Great post. "Lang Lang with a baton" hahaha.

From the Justin Davidson article:

Maybe Dudamel isn’t the next Bernstein after all, but the new Zubin Mehta, a charismatic wunderkind of uncertain taste, who took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic in his 20s and then settled into a long, distinguished, and musically infuriating career.

"Lang Lang with a baton" is indeed a sharp stab with a sharper blade- and the best aphorism I've read in awhile.
Dudamel= whatever, too soon to tell anything. But Bernstein was overrated. Practically every time someone conducted his compositions, I liked them better.
Geez you seem to have an anti-Dudamel agenda. It's not really enlightening to write almost daily about how he is overrated, is it? We should all be wise to marketing in 2010. Ok, so some still aren't but does writing about it ad nauseum solve anything?
The only thing is that it's not like you are the only blog with an agenda, as seemingly all of them have one. Whether it's to promote some artists over others, to bask in the glory of the old 'golden ages' or to simply be dicks to everyone. Bottom line- if you don't have an agenda, I can't believe you aren't sick of writing about Dudamel yet.
Yes, I do have an agenda. That agenda is trying to prevent the LA Phil, which has reached the point of being one of the best orchestras in the world over the last two decades, from sliding in terms of quality and scope of vision which it appears to be doing.

Am I bored about writing negative things about Dudamel? Yes. I wish he would improve. I doubt it's any more boring that only writing positive things about him which seems to fit the agenda of the LA Times and other local outlets for what I assume must be some sort of misguided boosterism. Frankly, if there were a more balanced view of him at other outlets in Southern California, I might not feel the need to write about this topic as often as I do. In fact, the orchestra would probably have fared better in the print media on its recent tour had there been a more diverse perspective here before hand.

Finally, stating that I write negative things about Dudamel "almost daily" is erroneous. If you carefully review what I have written about his performances with the LA Phil this season you will find some positive ones including the last performance the group gave before going on tour and the Verdi Requiem from last fall.
Dudamel is young, and still has time to learn and remedy his defects. But what can be said of Swed? He has been at the critic's post for a long time, and he should know better. His reviews are often reactionary, basically belittling any critics of Dudamel as not being able to "live in the moment", or coming in with preconceptions that they want to have reinforced.

As this blog points out, the future of classical music is the loser in all this. Swed's hype of Dudamel suggests that the other conductors of the LA Phil this year were not as good. For example, Charles Dutoit has given wonderful performances the last 2 seasons. Why not praise them? Because, as this blog again points out, hype has a limited shelf life, while quality performances will appeal forever.
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