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A tale of two orchestras

Last year, the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic both introduced new, young music directors, Alan Gilbert and Gustavo Dudamel, who were going to bring a new face to their respective organizations. This year, as if to emphasize the similarities, both orchestras held their press conferences for their 2010-11 seasons yesterday at exactly the same time.

It’s easy to see them as a comparison between tradition and the new: between the “old money” of the august New York Phil and the funky arriviste of the orchestra in L.A., which even before Dudamel had established its hip quotient with the tenure of Esa-Pekka Salonen and the spectacular Disney Hall. Now, though, both orchestras are moving on parallel tracks in what appears to be an attempt to put their money where their mouths are in terms of bringing each organization into a more active role in the life of its city -- and into the 20th century. It’s fair to say that the New York Philharmonic has farther to travel to attain this goal.
(read more after the jump)

There are certainly marked similarities between the two seasons. Salonen will conduct two weeks in Los Angeles and three in New York (where he will lead a mini-festival called Hungarian Echoes); in both New York and L.A. he will conduct Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” in a video/staged production. The British composer Thomas Ades is curating five programs in L.A. for a festival called “Aspects of Ades,” which will include both orchestral and chamber concerts; while in New York, Gilbert will conduct his piece “In Seven Days,” written to celebrate new halls in Los Angeles and London.

Both orchestras have contemporary music festivals, though L.A.’s “Green Umbrella” series, overseen by John Adams, is more extensive than New York’s “Contact.” Both orchestras are going to Europe; the New York Philharmonic, which just got back from a European tour in January, is going twice. Some of these things are simply part of the way that a certain kind of forward-thinking musical institution seeks to reach out to audiences and keep itself moving forward; the programming wouldn't be out of place at Carnegie Hall.

The biggest differences lie in the way that each season reflects its music director. Gilbert has from the start clearly had big plans for the Philharmonic and is actively going about implementing them and putting his stamp on the place. He launched the “Contact” series, brought in Magnus Lindberg as composer-in-residence (new works by Lindberg and Aaron Jay Kernis are on the program), and is clearly pushing for more multimedia and staged opera; before we’ve even seen this season’s “Grand Macabre,” he’s planning a fully-staged “Cunning Little Vixen” by the same director, Douglas Fitch. He’s also keeping up the bread-and-butter fare: Mahler’s 5th and 6th Symphonies and Mendelssohn’s Elijah are other 2010-11 highlights, reflecting a certain conservatism present in his musical approach

Dudamel is less of a thinker: he is a musical animal, with ineffable star power. While I imagine that he welcomes what is going on in L.A.’s lavish cornucopia of a season, I doubt he initiated much of it himself; Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president and CEO, is the stronger voice, in the press release, in presenting it. There’s nothing wrong with that: not every conductor wants to be the main idea man, and there are plenty of exciting ideas flying around Los Angeles (9 world premieres; the new position of “creative chair for jazz,” filled by Herbie Hancock; Baroque orchestras; the continuation of a youth orchestra modeled on El Sistema, the Venezuelan system that fostered Dudamel). It's perhaps less expected that Dudamel projects a certain conservatism as well; he's a brilliant conductor, but not a break-the-rules one, though his tremendous charisma sometimes makes it look as though he were more of a wild child than he actually is.

The announcements also come as a reminder that the relation between a music director and his or her orchestra is not a sprint but a long haul, and the real benefits tend to reveal themselves slowly over time. It will be interesting to see how Gilbert and the New York players develop; I've heard some promising accounts about this relationship from others who shared my disappointment with opening night. And it will be really interesting to see whether Dudamel becomes someone who does think of new initiatives, new projects and plans. But the fact that we're interested at all is already, itself, a big step in the right direction.

By Anne Midgette  |  February 17, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  national , news  
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Are you basing your conjecture about Borda on anything other than the press release? I think it's also plausible that she's up front because she is more articulate than Dudamel.

Regarding Gilbert, I heard Saturday night's Carnegie Hall program (Rienzi Overture; Magnus Lindberg Clarinet Concerto; Sibelius Second) and it was absolutely sensational. They smoked the place; fantastic playing and completely mastery on Gilbert's part. Putting it another way, his Sibelius 2 was better than was I heard from Salonen and the LAPO in 2007.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | February 17, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Lisa: I'm basing my conjecture about Borda on lots of things I've observed over the years. But I do think the press release would have made some mention if any of the new initiatives had been Dudamel's own pet project (rather than attributing the whole season to "Dudamel and his creative team"). Let's just say I'm not yet getting a clear picture of where Dudamel's tastes lie, apart from the fact that he's open to new things.

I'm pleased that you, too, are excited about Gilbert and the New York Phil; I'm looking forward to hearing them again.

Posted by: MidgetteA | February 17, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Three comments:
1. The season announcements did not occur “exactly at the same time” yesterday. According to Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, they happened an hour apart.
2. While Herbie Hancock is new to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s position of Creative Chair for Jazz, the position itself is not new — Hancock is the third person to fill the chair.
3. I never expected to see the words “Gustavo Dudamel” and “conservatism” in the same sentence but if you mean that his programming contains “traditional” selections in addition to new music, then I suppose you’re correct. It’s true that Gustavo has planned a five-week Brahms festival to conclude next season but each concert (four symphonies and “A German Requiem”) is paired with a premiere — two world, two U.S. one West Coast. I don’t consider that to be particularly conservative.

Posted by: BobTatFORE | February 17, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Sorry to be the spoiler of the party, but I was also at the NY Phil Carnegie Hall concert and I don't believe Gilbert's Sibelius was great. For example, those rapid string passages in piano should have given chills on the spine, but they simply were there. I also believ that Gilbert has not (yet?) mastered the architecture of the piece; the 2nd movement in particular seemed long in his hands. There were positives, of course: for example the theme in the finale was properly rousing.

But Gilbert seemed much more in his element in Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto, even though it was the only piece he conducted from the score - and one should note that the piece was lead by Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples; in the other works concertmaster Glenn Dicterow being the leader. The strings had a great clarity, something not easy in this piece. And soloist Kari Kriikku was simply sensational. I don't pretend to know in great depth the clarinet repertoire, but the the liquid tone in the most strident passages, the way he reached the highest notes, the colors, were simply beyond words. And yes, the work is a great addition to the repertoire.

The orchestra is in terrific shape. The woodwinds were finally allowed to bloom - something hard in the the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall - and they showed themselves as a world class section. And one should keep in mind that principal flutist Robert Langevin had the night off, that principal oboist Liang Wang only played in Sibelius, and that the principal clarinet post is not yet filled after Stanley Drucker's retirement (Mark Nuccio is assistant pricipal.)

Yet old habits die hard. The brasses were still too loud, although one senses that they can be thamed (with hard work) were Carnegie Hall to be the home of the NY Phil (allow me to dream, please.) On the other hand, the strings had a creamier sound if one compares with the dark chocolaty sound under Maazel at Avery Fisher Hall. How much of this was due to Gilbert and how much was due to Carnegie Hall I don't know since it's the first time that I heard both the NY Phil under Gilbert as well as the NY Phil playing at Carnegie Hall. I assume it's both.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | February 17, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Correction: should have said that "Mark Nuccio is *acting* pricipal."

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | February 17, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Bob: I stand corrected on both counts. I had thought the New York Philharmonic season announcement was scheduled for 1 pm, EST, but it appears to have been at 11 am - actually two hours' difference from the LA Phil's, which was at 10 am PST.

As for Dudamel's conservatism -- I was actually talking about his interpretations on the podium, more than his programming choices. No question that he's a brilliant conductor, but there's a certain restraint in the actual approach to the standard rep I've heard him do so far.

ciccio: very interesting observations, and now I'm all the more interested to hear them again. I believe the reviews from the European tour were mixed.

Posted by: MidgetteA | February 17, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

These two coastal American orchestras are each featuring major new, ‘non-alternative classical’ works of Thomas Ades, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Magnus Lindberg. (The Ades work in Los Angeles will also feature video projection).

The New York City orchestra is also featuring in its traditional subscription programming new or newer music by Christopher Rouse, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Wolfgang Rihm – all of whom have been performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall.

The Los Angeles orchestra is also featuring in its traditional subscription programming new or newer music by Gorecki, Turnage, Connesson, Marsalis, Salonen, Barry, Golijov, Mackey, and Leiberson – not all of whom have been performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall (although most have been).

Non-traditional new music programming by the New York City orchestral musicians features exciting newer music by Muhly, Pintscher, Shepherd, Dalbavie, Kampela, Lei Liang, Arlene Sierra, Ellen Page, and Shaun White.

Non-traditional new music programming by the Los Angeles orchestral musicians features exciting newer music by Glass, Crumb, Hillborg, Lang, Gordon, Wolf, Unsuk Chin, Richard Ayers, Jeffrey Kahane, Andrew Norman, Atom Egoyan, Shauna Cross, and Francisco Coll (but why not David Coll?).

‘Greatest orchestra in the world’ rubbish aside, will Rene Fleming be starring in the world premiere of Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis’s and Ann Patchett’s upcoming opera “Bel Canto” and will the former Washington National Opera agree to stage it?

Posted by: snaketime1 | February 17, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

cicciofrancolando - what can I say? I heard the Sibelius very differently, thought Gilbert absolutely nailed the structure of the piece, in all of the movements.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | February 17, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

de gustibus non est disputandum...

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | February 17, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Indeed. I was in the orchestra section, by the way, Row T. From there, the brass was in balance with the rest of the orchestra, but that certainly could vary depending on where you were sitting.

I agree about how great the winds and strings sounded!

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | February 17, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Your take on who is really running the show in LA is one of our few areas of agreement. Dudamel is stellar and I think he has more ideas than you may think. The LA Phil is a pretty good group but he makes them sway and soar like few others I've seen. It is unclear if he'll ever get the reins as befits an MD. Borda is very much in control. Salonen hasn't gone anywhere. For a guy protesting that he wants to compose more, he's sure waving the stick all over the place. John Adams, the Tartuffe of classical music, insinuates himself and his tendentious agenda everywhere he can while oozing piety from every pore.

The difficult question for some of us is whether by supporting the orchestra through a subscription/donations, we're complicit with keeping Salonen, Adams, and their ilk in clover in dire times for music and the arts. Regime change has been less than expected and anticipated in LA much as it has been in the larger sense. The answer was easy last season with Dudamel only in town for about four weeks and the emphasis on festivals of silly: Cancel
But, the LA Phil has just sent a renewal packet anyway acknowledging last year's no and offering to try again. With Dudamel in town for at least 12 weeks and conducting some good stuff, it is not as easy to toss the packet.

As an aside, I wonder why the LA Phil is so persistent with ex-subscriber followup when they say that their tickets are hot and the hall full.

Posted by: clarkson_hammond | February 17, 2010 10:23 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with the premise of your statement that these orchestras need to be"brought into the 20th century". They've both already been in for a long time, and are actually in the 21st century now.
It never ceases to amaze me they way critics have been dismissing the New York Philharmonic as a stodgy,hidebound institution until the arrival of Alan Gilbert.
It has already been playing far more challenging new music than most orchestras for many years, both under music directors such as Mehta,Masur and Maazel,and guest conductors, as well as many interesting rarities from the past.
Yet if you read many critics, you would think that it has been doing nothing but playing the same old warhorses ad nauseam.
Gilbert's programming looks very interesting,but stories of how innovative it is are greatly exaggerated.
Yes the NYPO plays standard repertoire, but so do orchestras everywhere.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | February 18, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

“into the 20th century.”

Horn, it was obviously another very stupid comment on the Washington Post’s part, and I was waiting for someone to notice. Most people have to forgive the Washington Post for so much these sad, rude, and polarizing days. (But Anne Midgette using the phrase “bling incarnate” to describe a very fine Dutch classical musician is – I agree with others - going too far, and is exceptionally culturally harmful.)

The uncorrected comment above about the 20th c. was clearly part of Ms Midgette’s and Greg Sandow’s (her husband and intellectual mentor) baiting and insidious attempt to further his aging, 40 year-old rock-music inspired, ‘libertarian’ ideology that Western orchestras should slowly be replaced by smaller “alternative classical” musical ensembles – many of which are electronically amplified and forgo Western music training, notational, and tuning systems in favor of group and solo improvisation, and improvisation-inspired alternative notations.

I believe that you know this already – as do the many intelligent music lovers readers here.

Posted by: snaketime1 | February 18, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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