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Dudamel, the backlash

In Friday's Washington Post: Gustavo Dudamel and the salvation of classical music.

I’ve been amused, and I’m not the only one, to read all of the critical backlash against Gustavo Dudamel on his recent American tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia, the discovery has been made that Dudamel does, in fact, [edited to add:] haves feet of clay. His conducting can be uneven, superficial, moment-to-moment.

Each assessment stresses that this wouldn’t matter so much were it not that Dudamel is being billed as the future of classical music.

Here’s the thing, though: Dudamel is not the future of classical music. He’s not even trying to be. The people who are trying to move classical music into the future are thinking about alternate kinds of programming, new venues, different repertory. (See, for instance, Alan Gilbert’s series of YouTube videos palling around with Death, a character in Ligeti’s “Grand Macabre,” which the New York Philharmonic is performing tonight.)

This isn't really Dudamel's style. What Dudamel is is a hugely charismatic and hugely talented guy with a lot of personal magnetism, and people are hoping that can be harnessed into a new energy for the field and into attracting new audiences. I hope it can, though I’m not sure how many people outside the field are actually aware of Dudamel (Peter Dobrin’s article does intimate that he drew newbies to his Philadelphia concert).
(read more after the jump)

But Dudamel’s whole training appears to have been about perpetuating the status quo -- about the idea that leading an orchestra in standard repertoire is the highest thing to which a musician can aspire. I think this is one reason he’s been so exciting to many people in the field: he represents a future without radical change; a younger generation that can groove to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven; children saved from ignorance and poverty by the beauties of the core classical repertory (the underlying premise of El Sistema, the Venezuelan music-training system that spawned him and that he’s actively perpetuating in Los Angeles). Yes, he’s exploring new music in his programming to a certain degree, but that isn’t what has gotten people excited about him.

I don't see how Dudamel represents a new beginning for classical music unless we can spawn a whole crop of other similarly exciting 20-somethings. What he represents is a revivifying jolt of energy applied to the established model -- something that's sorely needed, and that's wonderful to see. The irony to me in the current bout of criticism is that Dudamel has in the past seemed to me less individual, or more at risk of falling into trained-monkey syndrome (using his talent to execute what he was told others expected of him) than he did in the most recent LA concerts. The question has always been whether he would be able to bring his own voice and personality to his work: the Pathetique showed me, at least, that the answer is yes. Uneven? Of course. Dudamel’s great strengths are wild, untrammeled energy combined with visceral talent, and that’s pretty much a recipe for unevenness. Is he an orchestra builder? Not yet; the critics, including myself, have pointed out all of the LA players' technical weaknesses. But his Pathetique, in Washington, sounded like the work of a conductor who has something to say, and I was willing to take the bumps on the way to hearing it. (From the reaction of my colleagues to his Pathetique in other cities, I'd also say that Washington may have represented a particularly good night.)

He's a scarily talented young conductor who has been thrust into the position of acting as music's savior. Now, he's learning the next step of his trade, in the public eye. But whether he learns to become a real orchestra builder with LA or continues to be erratic, it's going to take more than even Dudamel at his best to keep music vital in the 21st century.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 27, 2010; 8:15 AM ET
Categories:  national  
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That is a good point that I hadn't thought of - saying "Dudamel is the future" is basically saying "See, I told you the current classical music model was fine! We just needed more charismatic conductors!"

If you think of it that way, it's kind of like saying Josh Bell is the future of classical music. Or Yuja Wang, if you want to put an age limit on your future. La plus ca change, etc.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 27, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Let's not forget, though, he is also the Musical Director of two other orchestras (SBYO and Gothenberg) and I'm sure learning many ropes along the way - not just the Hollywood marketing machine. We hope. My own review of the LA Phil's performance at NJPAC last week is somewhat similar:

Posted by: spbmrmusic | May 27, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Excellent analysis! It DOES seem unfair, now that you mention it, to hold Dudamel accountable for the ambitions that others have projected onto him.

Posted by: WilliamMadison | May 27, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

It sounds a bit like we are making Dudamel the next Brahms - yes, he's talented, but no, he's not going to be the Messiah. Only in this case, we don't really know what the Messiah looks like. Or the Messiah is a backward-looking concept.

Posted by: mauralafferty | May 27, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

One has to admit, however, that the backlash from the backlash is just as peculiar. Of the possible reasons for the bad reviews of Dudamel's concert tour, James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times offers: East Coast bias or "another L.A. beat-down" (yet, at the same time, provincialism), jealousy, hometown bias, and even racism ("the same critiques of Dudamel have become super-charged by his 'otherness' — the conductor who is too hot and too Latin for some traditional tastes"),0,5049901,full.column

Is it really so impossible that Dudamel could have even just a rough start with a new orchestra that it makes sense to speculate, with no evidence whatsoever, that a bad review could be caused by racism? Did James Rainey call any of the critics who wrote bad reviews to ask them more about what they wrote? No, his sources are "veteran musicians" of the orchestra under review and L.A. Philharmonic President Deborah Borda (who is described as "joking with" L.A. Times classical music critic Mark Swed about the critical backlash to the tour).

I'm frankly glad that I was not able to attend the concert, because who would want to write a review with this kind of hysteria and over-reaction in the air?

Posted by: Charles_D | May 27, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I have to say, though, that I like that there's so much excitement about G. Dude Melle Mel and his critical reception. I like the idea that people can have prejudices and fling around wild accusations just as unreasoningly as they do in, for example, sports, which teach no eternal verities other than that Cleveland sucks. We don't all have to be responsible all the time...right?

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 27, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

(Note: I don't exactly approve of having prejudices, or think that any prejudices are necessarily being observed, or condone wild accusations. I just like the buzz.)

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 27, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

There has been so much hype about "The Dude" (which should remind those of who lived in LA during the 60s and 70s of "Zubie Baby") that the backlash was inevitable. What does bother me though, is the circling of the wagons in Los Angeles, claiming racism, homerism, etc.

I knew the hype had gone too far when LA's most famous hot dog establishment, Pink's, named a menu item for him before he officially began his gig:

"L.A. Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel Dog: Stretch hot dog, guacamole, American & Swiss cheese, fajitasmix, jalapeno slice, topped with tortilla chips." It's $6.95.

Posted by: GRILLADES | May 27, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

"The Dude" is the best thing to happen to Classical music performance since the advent of his predecessor at the L.A. Phil.

Critics need to grow up.

Posted by: mitrich | May 27, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

'“La Diva Renée” begins with a crisp sablé cookie layered successively with hazelnut wafers, milk chocolate-Champagne chantilly and a slim chocolate biscuit graced with a coating of bittersweet chocolate. The coup de grace is a final layer of milk chocolate-Champagne chantilly and an almond-Amaretto biscuit crowned with a milk chocolate emblem sporting the notes of the Marschallin’s aria from Der Rosenkavalier. Peach Melba make way for “La Diva Renée!”'

"Peach Melba" and “La Diva Renée” make way for “Gustavo Dudamel Dog”?

[Is it true that the sequel to Lost will be named Dark Hope?]

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 27, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

First of all, Dudamel led the world premiere of a piece (John Adams' "City Noir") on his opening night in L.A., which hardly qualifies as "perpetuating the status quo." Where did you get that idea? I'm sure he will be leading more 21st Century works going forward.
Second, inflated expectations had nothing to do with the criticisms of his concerts in San Francisco, one of which I attended. His quirky approach to repertoire standards like Mahler 1, playing havoc with tempi and the like, at the expense of orchestral cohesion, was a major distraction.
We never read of "the LA players' technical weaknesses" when Salonen was on the podium. The onus is on Dudamel. And that's the whole point here. This is a major conducting assignment (regardless of the jaundiced view from the East) and one would expect its holder to maintain at least the basics, like getting the musicians to play together.
I assume as time goes by this situation will improve. Meanwhile, because of the extraordinary degree of Hollywood hype that has accompanied Dudamel's appointment, it's only natural for a certain degree of hypercriticism to come into play.

Posted by: jh6736 | May 27, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

jh6736: I guess you overlooked another line from this post: "Yes, he’s exploring new music in his programming to a certain degree, but that isn’t what has gotten people excited about him."

Posted by: Anne Midgette | May 27, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

How can any critic marvel at the fact that Dudamel got dissed by the Chicago and East Coast press??? Anyone who has seen the by now infamous Dudamel "Intro on Mahler's Symphony No. 1 [Salzburg 2008]," a series of videos of an open rehearsal at the Festspiele, where Dudamel, among other totally nonsensical views, likens the double bass ostinato in the slow movement to a "tango," has been laughing his/her head off when Mahler and Dudamel get mentioned in the same sentence. It stands to reason that all the reviewers of the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, etc. have seen these highly embarrassing samples of a maestro who's gotten high on sniffing Mahler and then sneezes his opinions at a bemused Austrian audience. Subsequently, they, like anyone else have been unable to take Dudamel seriously anymore. How IMG and the LA Phil ever allowed those videos to get shot, let alone out onto YouTube is beyond me. Surely that is one of the greatest PR gaffes committed by IMG and the LA Phil in their histories.

Posted by: TomVidager | May 27, 2010 10:23 PM | Report abuse

Could any mortal live up to the hype?

Posted by: wsheppard | May 28, 2010 8:11 AM | Report abuse

One of the things not before mentioned is that the LA Philharmonic rehearses and performs in perhaps the best concert hall in the world today. Perhaps they are a bit spoiled and can't seem to find their footing in other halls around the country in the short time they are there. We all know that halls (such as the Concertbegouw in Amsterdam) frame and influence how the orchestra sounds. I've heard Dudamel in Los Angeles on numerous occasions and the ensemble is terrific - and the orchestra always first class, to say nothing of his leadership. Give the guy, and this emerging first class ensemble a break!

Posted by: jaegerthla | May 28, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree with you more Anne, he is invigorating classical music and I am all for his energy! We need this!

Posted by: BucklesweetMedia | May 28, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

So. Much. Crap.

Critics of Dudamel and the Phil practically to a one choose not to cite anything specific but take refuge in general critical terms: "technical weaknesses" or "ensemble lapses, for example. Which player or section, which work, when and in what way. To put it another way, "where's the beef?"

As a violinist, I've played in professional orchestras and ensembles over 30 years, and I have read good criticisms where the critic backs up his or her words with examples. But, mostly it's just the critic trying to score a rhetorical point at the expense of the players, who in fact performed perfectly well, played exactly as was indicated in the score and conducted. But that wouldn't sell newspapers, which is the point of the exercise.

I live in Los Angeles, have performed in Los Angeles, and while I love the LA Phil, I would be among the first to pick up on weaknesses or unintended consequences. Sometimes the critic is spot on, even insightful. Usually, though, they are talking nonsense.

Posted by: tomeg | May 28, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I didn't attend this concert since I was disappointed with Dudamel's outing with the Israel Philharmonic. The Dude is certainly talented but he has to grow, and I see no reason why he can't grow with the LAPO. So I decided to wait for a few years until I will see him again.

But there's no doubt that the marketing has been horrendous and that nobody could have stand close scrutinity to that kind of hype. Plus, The Dude is overextending himself. He is director of three orchestras, and he guest conducts. He should give up one of the bands and take time to study the scores.

I should also point out that the LAPO was technically, not the greatest orchestra even during Salonen's tenure. This is based on both their visits to Washington and on what other people seem to say.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 28, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Interesting piece, and great point about Dudamel fitting into an existing model rather than creating a new one.

BTW, you have a grammar slip-up: "that Dudamel does, in fact, has feet of clay" should read "that Dudamel does, in fact, have" or "that Dudamel, in fact, has."

Also, the "trained monkey" quip is really skirting the line, you know.

Posted by: angostura1 | June 1, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

To a European like me this sounds like an old fashioned debate. The kind of "new programming" that Alan Gilbert undertakes might be new to American standards but is established in Europe and especially in Germany for decades.

But those programmes were always co-existing to more "conservative" programmes which are rather driven by new artistic personalities and interpretations. So I don't really think that the future lies in one sort only. In boths ways is enough potential to draw continuing attention.

What we sometimes forget is that already the generation of Bernstein and Karajan was already the second or third generation "recycling" the 19th century repertoire and I guess the recycling will still go on for a while.

Posted by: thomasw2 | June 3, 2010 5:07 AM | Report abuse

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