On Thursday night, for the first time in his career, Gustavo Dudamel conducted Verdi’s grandly operatic 90-minute Requiem here with the Gothenburg Symphony. Afterward I visited the 28-year-old conductor in his modest dressing room in the Concert Hall, a Swedish functionalist auditorium that was built in 1935 and stands proudly as part of a sternly imposing arts complex at the end of the city’s main avenue. He greeted me with a sheepish smile and blurted out, “Sorry.”
There had been unmistakable thrills and the occasional moment of sudden, stunning beauty, but Dudamel was thinking about the many mistakes. He had misgauged some tempos. He hadn’t managed to fully hold together a long, segmented, operatic score. He hadn’t realized how differently the soloists, with whom he had never worked, would sing under the pressure of a live concert from rehearsal. And he needed more time with the chorus, which was a well-prepared amateur body that sang from memory. But the members have day jobs and are available to rehearse only in the evening. Dudamel had arrived in town only two days earlier, having just made his debut with the storied Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and may have still been changing gears.
But he was, nonetheless, infectiously happy. He was ending his second season as the orchestra’s music director and knew things would get better with what he called “this crazy opera” over its three-day run. They did.
Saturday afternoon I was again in Dudamel’s dressing room, this time after a spectacular final matinee performance. Players filed in to thank their ebullient young maestro. The seasoned concertmaster Christer Thorvaldsson, a member of the 104-year-old ensemble for 36 years and something of a legend in Swedish orchestral circles, announced that Dudamel was the finest conductor he had ever worked with. Dudamel brought out a bottle of old Scotch.
As the classical music community well knows and as a rapidly growing general audience has been finding out, Dudamel is a sensation and pretty much still always a surprise. When he begins as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the fall, he is expected to generate a huge amount of attention, no matter how celebrity-saturated the city. But even a conducting sensation has to learn the music director business somewhere, to say nothing of a broad repertory of pieces. That’s where Gothenburg comes in.
Being music director of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas for a decade is far different from heading an orchestra in Europe or America. At home Dudamel can rehearse nonprofessional young players as much as he likes, unconcerned with union regulations -- or any regulations. He knows these youngsters intimately; he grew up with many of them. They are family.
Sweden’s second city, though, is a great distance geographically and culturally from Caracas. The Gothenburg Symphony is a relatively traditional institution, and its concert hall was built to be a temple to music. You enter through a very long, mundane cloak room and ascend a marble staircase, to the higher realm of art.
But Gothenburg is also a relaxed, pleasure-loving place that seems to suit Dudamel remarkably well. Cafe society is a central part of its charm. The student community is large. Sea and mountains are nearby. It is a culinary capital. This town of a half-million residents on Sweden’s west coast, halfway between Copenhagen and Oslo, boasts an astonishing five Michelin-starred restaurants.
Obviously, on some level, Dudamel’s presence here was a business decision. His high-powered London management is pleased to have him in this relatively obscure post where he can learn and experiment outside the international limelight.
For the orchestra -- which Neeme Jarvi headed for 22 years followed by a short three-year term with Mario Venzago -- Dudamel offered a huge dose of much-needed glamour and vitality, and it is willing to forgive a lot knowing what the final results can be. Had he given Thursday’s performance in London, he would have been slaughtered by the critics. In Gothenburg, all three performances were sold out and audiences stood and cheered with the same degree of enthusiasm for each of the radically different performances.
But what Gothenburg really offers Dudamel is respite from constant attention. His guest-conducting stints in European capitals and in America draw a media circus. In Venezuela, he and his wife, Eloisa Maturen, need armed security with them at all times because of kidnapping threats.
And though Dudamel says he is not crazy about Sweden’s dark, cold winters, it was sunny and warm during my stay, turning dark around 11 p.m. Here he can walk the streets, interrupted only by the occasional friendly greetings of well-wishers. He is also left in relative peace to study and work.
In a curious way, Dudamel may have been destined for this orchestra, which is the most convivial large professional ensemble I have encountered. After Saturday’s matinee, Dudamel, flashing a conspiratorial grin, told me I had to see the bar. I thought I had seen the bars in the lobby, where one could have a drink while mulling over a somber bust of an obscure Swede. He meant a private bar for the players, where outsiders are rarely welcome and only orchestra members are permitted to buy drinks. Dudamel bought me a beer and hung for half an hour with his fellow musicians.
Nearly all the players come by after each performance, and Dudamel always shows. On this afternoon he was practically as chummy with his Swedish players (most of whom are quite a bit older than he is) as he can be around the Bolivars. Later that night, Dudamel’s wife would cook a Mexican dinner for the family of a Danish member of the orchestra with whom the couple has become friendly.
I’m assuming that the trust the Gothenburgers feel for Dudamel explains what happened over these three performances of the Verdi Requiem, since I have no other explanation. Although this was his first time with any Verdi score, Dudamel conducted from memory. The impression over three days was like that of being in an optometrist’s chair. Each click of the apparatus brought greater focus.
Dudamel always began and ended in theatrical silence, which felt gimmicky the first two times but worked brilliantly at the last performance. After he walked onto the podium, he waited until the hall was entirely still and then coaxed the cellos to come so quietly that you couldn’t tell when they first began playing. When the Requiem reached its final peace, he ever so slowly lowered his baton, holding an audience ready to burst at bay. Thursday and Friday, the crowd couldn’t take the final silence for more than a minute, but on Saturday he got away with an extra 30 seconds. At the bar, a number of player commented on this. Like me, they too had begun timing the baton-lowering act.
Saturday, he had also been able to bring instrumental details into superb relief while still maintaining the grand sweep (earlier it had usually been one or the other). Dudamel, of course, raised the roof in the Dies Irae section, where God’s wrath is unleashed in magnificently thunderous brass and timpani outbursts. Instead, Dudamel represented this as just one more, if particularly exciting, expression of an irrepressible life force.
The earthy Ekaterina Semenchuk was terrific all the time, her expressive Russian mezzo sounding ravishing. But the other soloists -- soprano Erika Sunnegardh, tenor Dominic Natoli and bass Julian Konstantinov -- were nervous and unreliable in the first performance and still in trouble the second. By Saturday, Dudamel found exactly what they needed in order to let loose but not lose control.
The result reminded me of something one might hear in a pirated recording from Italy in the 1930s, where the singing may not be pitch perfect but the expression carries you away. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a pirate of this performance begins making the rounds someday.
When Saturday’s performance was over I began to wonder just who was teaching whom. Dudamel came to Gothenburg to learn. And to the extent that all experience is learning, he undoubtedly has learned a lot. The next time he conducts Verdi’s Requiem will be with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in November. He says he can’t wait, and he is surely more ready for this than he was a week ago.
Still, I left Sweden with the distinct feeling that you can take the boy out of Venezuela -- well you know the rest. Gothenburg may actually be reinforcing Dudamel’s habits of comradeship and his tendency to conduct for the moment.
“I have to set something like this up in Disney Hall,” he said, flashing another conspiratorial look as we left the players’ bar. As far as Dudamel is concerned, the orchestra is family and that is all there is to it, be it Caracas or Gothenburg.