Electrico Gustavo, writ large on the back of buses, appears to be the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s newest source of renewable energy. Radiante Gustavo flashing on electric billboards luridly illumines the Southern California sky in competition with Nature and Her sunsets. Pasion Gustavo, in giant letters on Walt Disney Concert Hall, stirs Frank Gehry’s steel.
As for me, I’m preparing for the arrival this week of Gustavo Dudamel by charging my pocket Nikon. The camera will accompany me on daily walks along the beach, where I’m determined to get the first shot of the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic walking on water.
The 28-year-old conductor from Venezuela is hailed far and wide as the savior of classical music. From the scary slums of Caracas to the hoity-toity Salzburg Festival, Dudamel has achieved rock star status. He is an inspiration to the young, the most effective advocate of music education since Leonard Bernstein. Living the notes he conducts, he sweeps listeners and players alike along with him, always making his concerts rousing events.
This is an unbelievable situation Los Angeles finds itself in. Four years ago, Dudamel, then a conducting competition winner unknown to all but professional insiders, made his U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl. Now, he is nearly as loved by the elite Vienna Philharmonic as he is by his muchachos back home in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
But we must be cautious with our expectations. Dudamel is not going to walk on water and he is not going to single-handedly save an art form that has no need of life support. Indeed, were classical music so irrelevant to our times and needs, it could never have produced a Dudamel. Thoreau said we should walk four hours a day -- not to get anywhere but because it is good for the soul. That is the real reason to saunter on the beach or hear Dudamel conduct. Let the rest take care of itself.
Forget rock stars. All too often they find things that work and get stuck. Either they don’t grow because the feedback for what they already do is so addictive or because if they try to change, they find obstinate fan resistance.
Worse, if the crowd does want more, what it usually wants is more excess. Liberace was said to have grown uncomfortable at always having to top himself. He obviously liked flamboyance, but even he had his limits, and by the end of his life he knew he had gone too far and squandered a considerable talent. Those of us who admire Lang Lang’s pianism fear a similar fate. Show business eats up classical artists as hungrily as it does pop stars.
Fortunately Dudamel, who brings a unique set of qualifications to his job, has thus far shown an almost unreal ability to absorb the acclaim and remain authentic. Thanks to El Sistema, Venezuela’s visionary music education program, he began playing the violin in kiddie orchestras not long after he learned to walk. His conducting apprenticeship started in boyhood, as well.
This makes Dudamel the only major conductor who ever had an orchestra on which to practice daily all through his youth. Already he has spent as much time on a podium as music directors twice, even thrice, his age. Holding a baton is as natural for Dudamel as holding a bat is for a ballplayer who came up through Little League.
And, of course, Dudamel has a rare gift for conducting, which is why an obscure youngster from Barquisimeto got the opportunities he did. Millions of children have passed through El Systema; so far we have one Dudamel.
Thus we find a remarkably finished quality to Dudamel’s interpretations of symphonies by Mahler and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, works he has conducted dozens, maybe even hundreds, of times. He has a photographic memory and an agile mind. He learns new pieces very quickly and memorizes most of what he performs. This season we will see a mix of his old favorites, works just entering his repertory and many more world premieres than any music director other than his predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, normally attempts in a year.
For all that, though, Dudamel is still 28, and his maturity can only be expected to go so far. He may know a piece extremely well, but he unsurprisingly lives for the moment. Every mysterious pianissimo is pure magic. Every climax shakes the earth. And all music is pretty much the same for him -- Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Mahler, Shostakovich, Gyorgy Ligeti.
What works now for Dudamel, what is so vibrant in a conductor in his 20s, will not work for a conductor in his 40s and would be creepy for a conductor in his 60s. At the moment, Dudamel is a fully fueled rocket. He has the energy, the intelligence and the curiosity to take on a variety of new works and projects. But he has his tricks that he relies on to create excitement before he is in full command of many pieces.
Watching him conduct his first performances of Verdi’s Requiem last spring in Sweden, where he was finishing up his second season as the Gothenburg Symphony’s music director, I saw Dudamel try out the same kind of pregnant silences that he made so effective in Gyorgy Kurtag’s modernist “Stelle,” which he performed brilliantly with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last season. These breathless pauses sounded a bit pretentious in Verdi on the first night. By the third repeat of the Requiem, Dudamel had found a way to theatrically employ them.
Bernstein was a lot like that at the start of his career. He brought an emotional directness the likes of which had not been seen before. He never lost his ability to communicate with an audience, but as he matured, he found new, more meaningful means to get inside music. His innate theatricality became downright shamanistic and therein is found his immortality.
Dudamel will need his tricks to get through much of this season’s new music and music new to him, but it is important that they not become ticks. Besides Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s First symphonies, Dudamel will conduct in his first week with the L.A. Philharmonic the world premieres of John Adams’ “City Noir” (a large-scale symphony meant to evoke L.A. of the ‘40s and ‘50s and presumably with a smoky jazz flavor) and Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s concerto for sheng (a traditional Chinese reed instrument) and orchestra.
That is a whirlwind cultural tour if ever there was one, and I don’t doubt Dudamel’s ability to come to terms with it in his own way. But there will come a time, and maybe it should come pretty soon, when he will need to digest all that he is taking in so quickly and all that has happened to him in such a short period.
When Simon Rattle, who was a prodigy conductor and is one of Dudamel’s mentors, was 25, he took off a year from his meteoric career and read English literature at Oxford. That sort of sabbatical may not suit Dudamel’s temperament. But he will need room to grow, and all of us -- musicians, management, struggling record companies, audiences and, most of all, an overeager media always ready to move on to the next phenomenon -- have an important responsibility.
This is not just about now, but also about Futuro Gustavo. With his advocacy of youth orchestras, Dudamel himself has proclaimed the future as where the biggest investment must lie. But that applies to the Dude himself, and to us. If he is to really mean something momentous, if he is to be Bernstein-worthy, then we must prepare to support what he stands for. Classical art, please remember, is closer to much wine and cheese than most pop culture. It improves with age.
What does Dudamel think about all this? In Sweden he summed up Futuro Gustavo like this: “Many things are coming. My God, many things coming.”
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Days when we can expect spikes in Dudamania
Here are key dates in Gustavo Dudamel’s first year as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
He arrives at Walt Disney Concert Hall to begin rehearsals for his inaugural concerts.
”?Bienvenido Gustavo!” concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
Gala concert at Disney Concert Hall, featuring John Adams’ “City Noir,” conducted by Dudamel.
He leads his first regular concert of the season at Disney Concert Hall.
He conducts four performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem”
Dawn Upshaw sings and Dudamel conducts music by Luciano Berio and Franz Schubert.
West Coast, Left Coast Festival -- music by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Adams, conducted by Dudamel.
Americas and Americans Festival -- music by Bernstein, Lieberson and Chavez, conducted by Dudamel.
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Americas and Americans Festival -- music by Antonio Estevez, conducted by Dudamel.
He ends the season conducting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.