L.A. Phil is getting the vibe

Times Staff Writer

A few years back, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, a native of Finland, borrowed a little American entertainment industry slang when he told The Times that he expected to continue in the high-profile post as long as he felt “a good vibe from the band.”

But Saturday, Salonen, 48, surprised more than a few members of “the band” with a post-rehearsal announcement that, despite the continuing good vibe -- indeed, perhaps because of it -- the conductor would step down at the end of the 2008-09 season to devote more time to composing. According to Brian Drake, a French horn player and 28-year orchestra member, Salonen said he wanted to “go out at the top.”

And just as the musicians were adjusting to this news, there came another startling announcement from Philharmonic President Deborah Borda: Salonen would be succeeded by a 26-year-old rising star, Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

It was not as though the orchestra was unaware that Salonen might someday relinquish his position to further his composing goals. Still, Drake said Sunday, “Actually hearing it, actually having it be a fact, is still shocking.”


Cellist Gloria Lum said that she and a handful of other musicians went out after the post-rehearsal meeting, and she acknowledged that it took “a drink, a couple of drinks” for the artists to process the double announcement.

But Lum echoed what appears to be a unanimous good vibe of approval for Dudamel, music director of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, on the part of musicians and Philharmonic board members. Dudamel led the orchestra for the first time in 2005 at the Hollywood Bowl and returned to conduct it at Walt Disney Concert Hall in January.

“We’re a hard-bitten group of people -- I mean, we’re really very nice, but we get to work with some of the greatest conductors in the world,” Lum said. “To suddenly have the kind of connection and enthusiasm that we had with him was surprising.

“There are many conductors who are technically perfect, but they are taken with themselves, with their own ego as opposed to the music. With Dudamel, there is no artifice, no ego.”


Lum and other orchestra members also expressed relief that the announcement of Dudamel’s appointment was concurrent with Salonen’s resignation.

“The future of the orchestra is secure. We’re not going to flail around with our hat in hand like every other orchestra, saying, ‘Will you please come?’ ” she said, referring to the fact that major ensembles including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony are amid highly publicized conductor searches.

Said Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour, “I would characterize Dudamel as a sort of Impressionist painter -- he’s like a painter splashing colors on the canvas.”

Philharmonic board member David Bohnett described the young Venezuelan’s conducting at Disney Hall as “an electric conduit between the musicians and the audience.

“He generates an incredible amount of two-way energy,” Bohnett said.

Principal bass player Christopher Hanulik called the Bowl concert “explosive” and said, “Even at the first rehearsal we were all looking around at each other saying, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, who is this guy?’ ”

Added Hanulik: “Our relationship with Esa-Pekka is wonderful. There’s no acrimony. It’s not like anything is going bad or sour.”

But Dudamel “will have his own vision of what he wants to do with the orchestra,” Hanulik said. “I suspect we might have some composers and music from South and Central America.”


Hanulik was not among those surprised by Dudamel’s appointment. He, along with Chalifour, Bohnett and various other orchestra and board members, served on the liaison committee involved in choosing a Salonen successor.

The liaison committee was not appointed specifically to fill Salonen’s shoes. It always exists, with various musicians and board members serving two-year shifts. Even when there is no active search pending, the committee asks orchestra members to provide written evaluations of all guest conductors with an eye toward fostering continuing relationships. Through the process, the musicians play a key role in selecting their leaders.

In the case of Dudamel, Chalifour said, there were no negative evaluations. The word most musicians used to describe him, Chalifour said, was “inspiring.”

Frank Gehry, the architect of the Philharmonic’s home, Disney Hall, has developed a close relationship with Salonen but had high praise Sunday for the conductor’s successor. “I met Dudamel when he was here, and he and his wife love architecture, so they were all over me,” he said with a laugh. “I missed the concert, but everybody tells me how wonderful he is and that everybody was trying to get him, so I was amazed that Deborah was the one to get this done. It’s cool, really cool.”

Added Gehry, “It’s clear that Esa-Pekka is a major composer. He deserves the right to do it, it’s brave of him to do it, and I applaud it.”