Maestro will pass baton to up-and-comer in ‘09

Times Staff Writer

After helping make the Los Angeles Philharmonic one of the world’s most adventurous and versatile orchestras, Esa-Pekka Salonen has decided to step down as music director at the end of the 2008-09 season. His successor, the Philharmonic will announce Monday, will be Gustavo Dudamel, a charismatic 26-year-old conductor from Venezuela.

Salonen, who will still live in Los Angeles, intends to concentrate on composing, although he plans to continue to conduct the Philharmonic and other orchestras.

“I always felt that one day I would have to make the change in my own life, bite the bullet and see what it is to be a composer who conducts rather than the other way around,” he said in an interview.

“There is nothing drastic or dramatic behind this,” he said. “I would say it’s something quite normal or organic in my case.”

Already nearly as in demand as a composer as he is as a conductor, Salonen, 48, said he had long wanted to find more time to write. But his scheduled departure will still make him the longest-serving music director in the history of the Philharmonic, which was founded in 1919.


Signing Dudamel to a five-year contract as its next music director, beginning in the 2009-10 season, is a daring move by the orchestra. Audiences instantly respond to his ebullience and his curly-haired, boyish good looks. Yet although several major orchestras are believed to have been vying for him, Dudamel had never stood before a professional orchestra before taking part in a conducting competition sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony in Germany three years ago.

He was hailed as a natural on the podium and easily won that competition. Former longtime Philharmonic General Manager Ernest Fleischmann, who was among the jurors, told The Times in December: “Of the hundreds of conductors I’ve come across, only a few in their early 20s were of his caliber. Two others were Esa-Pekka and Simon Rattle, now music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.”

Dudamel’s U.S. debut was conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 2005, and it proved an immediate sensation because of the electricity of his gestures and his unbounded enthusiasm.

Since then, he has conducted some of the world’s most important orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, and has conducted at Italy’s La Scala opera house. Next season, he is scheduled to make his debuts with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He has also been signed to an exclusive contract by the Deutsche Grammophon record label. On Thursday night, he led the Chicago Symphony for the first time.

“Los Angeles was the first orchestra to give me the opportunity to make my U.S. debut at the very beginning of my career,” Dudamel said from Chicago. “The energy was very special from the start, and I love how open to new ideas the orchestra is.”

With the joint announcement of Salonen’s departure and Dudamel’s hiring, the Philharmonic is bypassing the typical lengthy search during which an orchestra’s every guest conductor is scrutinized by the public and media as a possible candidate for its leadership.

In some cases, an orchestra can flounder for years without a music director. Nor will the Philharmonic be forced to compete with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, all of which are in the midst of conductor searches.

L.A. Philharmonic President Deborah Borda said that because Salonen has always been forthright about his desire to compose more, she began thinking about a new music director from the moment she assumed her post in 2000.

More recently, a small Artistic Liaison Committee made up of Borda, Salonen and select members of the orchestra and its board of directors quietly evaluated conductors. Borda said the response from both the players and the public to Dudamel’s first concert with the Philharmonic at Disney Hall, in January, when he was even more impressive than at his Bowl appearance, is what swayed the committee.

Under the Finnish-born Salonen -- who was himself 26 when he first conducted the Philharmonic in 1984 and 34 when he became music director in 1992 -- the orchestra has become known for the dynamism of his performances and for his fresh ideas about programming. He also raised the ensemble’s profile in 2003 when he ushered it into a new home at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, a venue that has made it the envy of orchestras worldwide.

Lately, the orchestra has been in the news for works it has commissioned; for such special projects as a concert presentation of the Wagner opera “Tristan and Isolde,” with video by Bill Viola and staging by Peter Sellars, which it is scheduled to begin repeating Thursday; and for performances of Salonen’s own music, which combines a European rigor with a West Coast pizazz.

Those works include the 1997 orchestral piece “LA Variations”; the 2004 “Wing on Wing,” for orchestra and two sopranos, written for Disney Hall; and a piano concerto that was given its world premiere in February by soloist Yefim Bronfman and the New York Philharmonic, with Salonen conducting.

In the 2008-09 season, his last with the Philharmonic, Salonen is also set to become chief conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. But that position comes with no administrative duties and does not require him to conduct the enormous amount of standard repertory expected of a music director in America.

The job in Britain will also not require him to leave Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Jane; two daughters; and a son.

“I’m very happy to be a California artist; it suits me very well,” he said. And he contended that he would continue to find projects locally, such as his well-attended Stravinsky and Ligeti festivals with the Philharmonic. “I know that as long as I’m able to function as a musician in any capacity, I’ll be working with the L.A. Philharmonic in some capacity.”

Salonen will, however, give up what was reported in The Times last year as the highest salary among Southern California nonprofit arts organizations. The Philharmonic does not divulge salaries, but tax records show Salonen was paid nearly $1.3 million in 2004, although the figure is significantly lower than other top maestros, who can make more than $2 million a year. Dudamel’s age and relative lack of fame are likely to keep his salary well below Salonen’s current figure, at least for a few years.

At his Brentwood home last week, Salonen, who was also on the jury of the Bamberg competition three years ago, suggested that Dudamel’s inexperience should be of little concern.

“He’s definitely equipped with everything one needs to be conductor, and the mind is incredibly agile and quick,” Salonen said. He also noted that “investing in the future is very much in the spirit of this organization. The fascinating thing is going to be: What is the world for a twentysomething like? It’s bound to be very different from my world.”

The Philharmonic’s trust in youth has been rewarded. Zubin Mehta was 26 when he became music director in 1962, and he remained with the orchestra for 16 years.

Another big change for the orchestra will be the Latin American perspective Dudamel will bring, including what he said would be the inclusion of music by more Central and South American composers. Presuming that Placido Domingo, who grew up in Madrid and Mexico City, remains general director of Los Angeles Opera, the Southland’s two largest performing arts organizations will, by decade’s end, be run by Latinos.

Dudamel, who was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, to a trombonist father and a voice teacher mother, is a product of his country’s extensive music education program, which provides children the opportunity to study instruments and play in orchestras at an early age. Dudamel took up the violin at 10 and began conducting at 15.

Since 1999, he has been music director of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra, with which he is scheduled to perform at Disney Hall in the fall. He will also become principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden next season but said he planned to divide his time among the three orchestras. This will oblige him to reduce his guest conducting appearances but not forgo them.

“It is always beautiful to dance with other girls,” he said.

For all the emphasis on youth in Southern California, Philharmonic President Borda said she recognized that the appointment of Dudamel comes with many unknowns.

“Of course we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “But remember, he’s been conducting Mahler symphonies since he was a teenager. He’s been doing those works at a much younger age than other people.

“Now we must let him be him.”

Mark Swed is The Times’ classical music critic.



Gustavo Dudamel


Dudamel showed early promise as a violinist when he entered the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela at 11. His teachers, including Jose Luis Jimenez, saw that his true talent lay in conducting. He was named director of the state youth orchestra at 15 and of the national youth orchestra at 17.

Later success

The L.A. Philharmonic gave him his U.S. debut in 2005 at the Hollywood Bowl, an invitation extended after he won the Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Bamberg, Germany, the previous year. In 2006, he conducted Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at opera’s holiest of shrines, La Scala in Milan, Italy.


Wife, Eloisa

Source: Los Angeles Times



Esa-Pekka Salonen


Salonen, who was born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1958, first came to international attention in 1983 when he stepped in as a last-minute substitute for Michael Tilson Thomas to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in Mahler’s Third Symphony, after learning the score in a matter of days.


Since Salonen became music director of the L.A. Philharmonic in 1992, Los Angeles has been home for his family: wife Jane, daughters Ella Aneira and Anja Sofia and son Oliver.

Source: Los Angeles Times