This month’s issue of Gramophone
features a cover story on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current music director Gustavo Dudamel. It’s a somewhat odd piece that reads mostly as damage control over the continuing questions about Dudamel’s musical sophistication and the presence or absence of any broader artistic vision. Editor James Inverne notes in his own commentary that so much of what has been written about Dudamel focuses on his work with “El Sistema” and young musicians in general. “Almost all the media tend to want to ask [Dudamel] about El Sistema. That’s dangerous for him, because it takes away any real sense of interpretative vision, of a through-line to his performances. Then when the media descend on some big concert with the LA Phil, for instance, it becomes a one-off judgement as far as headline writers are concerned. Put crudely (it often is), it’s ‘Is he worth the hype?’” Thus Dudamel has become the victim of his own hype with the music press overlooking his musical ability as they are blinded by stories of his own enthralling personal story and many good works. It’s clearly time to buttress that musical image, so the Gramophone
, turns to Dudamel and the LA Phil’s cheerleader-in-chief, the Los Angeles Times
’s Mark Swed, for its story on that purported “interpretative vision.”
Of course, the irony that Swed, and the Gramophone
, are two of the chief architects of that hype to begin with is besides the point for the article that ensues. Much of the piece recounts Dudamel’s experience with Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony and his first experiences conducting Nielsen, Sibelius and Bruckner. There is talk about his love for this music that he had no virtually no exposure to prior to arriving in Gothenburg in 2007. (Swed notes he had conducted Sibelius as a student on a few occasions.) We are reminded how Dudamel prefers to conduct from memory and how he can sing parts of scores apparently on command.
But nearly a third of Swed’s article is a defense against the major criticisms Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic have faced during his tenure with the orchestra. First is the matter of the decidedly mixed reviews the orchestra received in its first American and European tours where Dudamel’s penchant for histrionically slow or fast tempos were called out by many professional music writers. This decision, according to the interview, was a conscious one intended at least in part, to make the tempo changes between movements even more dramatic. And while Swed, and Inverne in his quotation above, suggest that critics’ negative reactions to these performances were somehow unfair due to a perceived bias in people not familiar enough with Dudamel’s work, I’m here to tell you sometimes a first impression is dead on. Dudamel’s through-line in L.A. has been a tortuous one to listen to, plagued with balance problems and an effort to instill drama into music in a way that ironically has the effect of often destroying it in the process. The Brahms' series that concluded the season went nowhere with half of the new works scheduled for the show evaporating into nothing and none of the Brahms symphonies rising to the point that one would considered them memorable.
The other defense made in the Gramophone
article concerns the criticism that Dudamel has little experience and interest in new or recent classical music. Swed points to the Gothenburg, and subsequent L.A. premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Glorious Percussion
as an example of a new piece that Dudamel took on and liked. “He didn’t know what to make of it when he first looked at the score, but now he is in love with the work and with doing new pieces. Already in Los Angeles Dudamel programmes substantially more new and recent music than any conductor of a major U.S. orchestra.” Or at least he used to. I’m not sure what data Swed is basing that assertion on, but I can tell you Dudamel is leading almost none of the new and recent music in the L.A. Phil’s 2011/2012 season. And Glorious Percussion
aside, he has had little to say about or has shown little advocacy for new music in Los Angeles in his haphazard tenure here thus far.
As much as Swed’s defense of Dudamel in the latest Gramophone
would like to suggest that the more one is exposed to Dudamel’s conducting the more one appreciates it, the exact opposite is actually the case. The more you hear, the more you realize this young man whose “…accelerated rise to fame …clearly out-paced his professional conducting experience” is still learning his craft day-by-day at the most unlikely and inappropriate of places, as the head of one of the world’s greatest orchestras. Nice work if you can get it.
Labels: LA Philharmonic 11/12