The Los Angeles Philharmonic arrived Friday needing its spirits lifted. The flight from Seoul, the last leg of an Asia tour that began in Hong Kong a week earlier, was delayed. The bus ride from Narita airport to the Tokyo hotel meant a couple of more lost hours in traffic.
But some unexpected uplift, courtesy of Gustavo Dudamel, came quickly.
The orchestra's music director threw a little reception party, where he plied the players with Champagne and good news: He announced he was extending his contract, set to expire in 2019, three more years. That means Dudamel, now in his sixth season, will spend at least 13 years with the L.A. Phil.
"Sometimes when you make big decisions," he told the orchestra the next afternoon at a rehearsal in Suntory Hall before a performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony, "you are not sure later that you did the right thing. But I woke up yesterday and today very happy."
That evening, the orchestra gave the most fully realized, most sonically shattering, most overtly passionate Mahler performance it has yet played with Dudamel. The Japanese audience erupted into such unrestrained and prolonged applause that after a long while some musicians took out cellphones and snapped photos of one another.
It takes an unusually satisfied touring orchestra to take selfies on stage in Tokyo.
Tea-leaf readers want to know what it means now that Dudamel's continued commitment to Los Angeles has been revealed. Did he want to stop the speculation that the Berlin Philharmonic or New York Philharmonic, with upcoming vacancies, were headhunting him?
Was it related to the recent news of his pending divorce? Was he maybe listening to advice that he distance himself from Venezuela, given the increasing social unrest and diminishing relations between his homeland and the U.S.?
In fact, the concerts in Tokyo offered the fullest and least opaque explanation. Dudamel and the L.A. Phil is one marriage that works. So what better time or place to extend it than the season of cherry blossoms, or sakura, the most magical moment of the year in Tokyo?
There is something in sakura that heightens sensitivity to beauty. But sakura simultaneously create an intoxicating excitement, giving permission to throw off inhibitions.
That was exactly the spirit with which the orchestra tour ended Sunday afternoon with an intricately shaded performance of John Adams' "City Noir" and an epically engaging one of Dvorák's "New World" Symphony.
After the concert, players picking up green tea-flavored Kit Kat candies at a nearby market said something magical happened. Japanese music professionals who have seen it all in this city of nine professional orchestras and six major concert halls where the world's great orchestras are in regular appearance, spoke of Dudamel's Tokyo performances as transformative.
Dudamel's mantra has been that he is deeply happy. But he has also appeared here deeply serious. He was less casual than he used to be. He wore a conservative business suit to a press conference, not the jeans he once might have sported. He is beginning to get flecks of gray in his hair.
In a short conversation, he told me that at 34 he knows he is still young but increasingly aware of the weight of his responsibilities. "You know when you are working in the right direction and you are getting mature," he explained. "The vision opens more, and you get a better idea of what you want."
The vision he described is one of focusing more intently on L.A. and Venezuela. Rather than back away from the problems in his home country, he will make a renewed effort to help. And despite criticism at home for not taking sides in a divided country, he said he is doubling down his efforts to keep Venezuela's El Sistema education system out of politics.
"It is something beautiful that works, that gives hope," Dudamel explained. "It is the symbol of union that we need so much in our time."
He is planning this spring a tour of nucleos, El Sistema's music schools, in some of the farthest regions of the country to reach out to the children he feels demand more attention. Dudamel also said he is all the more committed to finding ways of bringing his two homes together, such as a cycle of Beethoven symphonies he will perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the fall with the L.A. Phil and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
Dudamel has been given, along with the new contract, the title of artistic director of the L.A. Phil on top of being music director. He calls this an honor, not more responsibility. The orchestra describes it as simply an acknowledgment of Dudamel's leadership all along in programming and the institution's social and educational programs.
What Dudamel's "happy" decision may ultimately represent is that he has the maturity to know what he doesn't know and the long-range vision to know that there are no shortcuts to greatness.
To continue to grow, Dudamel requires not just a great but also uniquely flexible orchestra. He needs time, commitment and support. A little love doesn't hurt either.
The L.A. Phil flies home Monday, the day the cherry blossoms are expected to reach their peak. Dudamel's sakura concerts were occasions of great renewal. His job now is to sneak the glow of sakura through customs and begin planting at home in L.A. for the future.