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Entertainment & Arts

3 L.A. Phil royals in one room: Dudamel, Mehta and Salonen talk, and make, history

Gustavo Dudamel, left, Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen photographed before a rehearsal at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Gustavo Dudamel, left, Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen are photographed before a rehearsal at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s mostly empty large rehearsal room on Tuesday afternoon, a piano tuner worked on three grands while a photographer set up, fantasizing about a backdrop in this otherwise industrial space. Minutes later, three men came in and suddenly the space needed nothing. It was suffused with history.

For the first time, Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel were in the same room at the same time.

It was two days before the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first concert, and together the three conductors represented nearly three-fifths of the orchestra’s history. Mehta was music director from 1962 to 1978 and is now conductor emeritus. Salonen served as music director from 1992 to 2009 and was then named conductor laureate. Dudamel took over in 2009.

The L.A. Phil is widely recognized as the international model of a relevant 21st century orchestra. It is the orchestra with the greatest vision and the most splendid modern concert hall. It is a major arts institution with community outreach like nothing seen before, and it is a symphony orchestra that makes the most money by taking the most extraordinary artistic chances. Collectively, Mehta, Salonen and Dudamel made it happen.

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But they also are among the world’s most admired conductors thanks to the L.A. Phil. Each arrived in town a dashing young man, seemingly all but made for Hollywood. Mehta was but 26; Salonen, 34; Dudamel, 28. Each then came of age as artists conducting the L.A. Phil.

The three conductors have, of course, known one another personally for a long time. Mehta and Salonen, moreover, were among the earliest champions of Dudamel. But they all shared a happy look of amazement to finally sit down together at the same table, offering a three-way interview before their first rehearsal at the three pianos of Islandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s “From Space I Saw Earth,” for three conductors. It was commissioned for the L.A. Phil’s 100th birthday gala Thursday night.

While they agreeably answered questions about what the orchestra meant to them, it wasn’t long before the conductors entered into a conversation by themselves, which has been edited here.

Mehta: [A piece for three conductors] was my idea. And now we are going to meet the composer.

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Salonen: We’re going to have a little chat.

Mehta: He says we don’t have to be together. He says so in his notes.

Dudamel: I will follow you.

Mehta: Don’t follow anybody. We’ll meet at the fermatas [pauses in the music].

Dudamel: This is unique. I can go to a concert and listen to Maestro Mehta or Salonen, but to conduct together is amazing. If you are a soloist, you have the chance to play together. But to conduct together is rare.

Mehta: I think that the composer solves that problem quite well.

Salonen: I think so too.

Mehta: He leaves us tempo freedom. Every eight or 10 bars we stop and start again. And then he says who’s to start, etc.

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Dudamel: But the thing is to be on the stage together.

Mehta: Yes!

Dudamel: Yesterday, I was like a kid thinking: Tomorrow, I will receive my new car. I have never had the chance to be with a colleague or a maestro on the same stage.

Salonen: It’s very satisfying to come back and see how things have developed and how the orchestra is thriving. There is a very good audience; the orchestra is in a very good position artistically and financially. As a former music director that’s the best gift you can have.

Mehta: You’re right.

Dudamel: Its our orchestra. They opened all these doors.

Salonen: I was thinking yesterday, the one thing we have in common, us three here, is that we were born in a country that wasn’t in the mainstream of classical tradition [Mehta from Mumbai, India; Salonen, Helsinki, Finland; Dudamel, Caracas, Venezuela]. And in a way L.A. is a fantastic place for somebody who is coming from outside the mainstream because it’s open, it’s curious. There is here [he points around him] a welcoming spirit toward a young person coming from somewhere. The board says, “OK, here is the organization, do something with it. We are with you, we support you.” There are not many other places that would actually do that. And things went well because of it.

[The conversation turns to what the job was like and how each operated, and the conductors ask questions of one another.]

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Mehta: I hired 86 players.

Salonen: You did?

Mehta: And fired only two. The only thing I couldn’t build up in my time was the first violins. Nobody retired in the first violin section. Everything else was changed for the better.

[Laughter all around.]

Dudamel: We have hired a lot of musicians. The core of the orchestra is there. But principal trumpet, horn, trombone, bass, clarinet, cello and viola are all new positions in the last 10 years. We are in tryouts for a new principal oboe.

Mehta: Excuse me for asking: Do you still have double first players?

Dudamel: No, not anymore. Right now, we have principal and associate. But we balance that. Associates play also as principals. The level is so great they can also be soloists.

Mehta: I made double first players to raise the standard. There was no other reason.

Mehta to Salonen: Did you do a lot of repertoire for the first time here?

Salonen: A fair amount, yeah.

Mehta: I did everything for the first time here, everything.

Dudamel, laughing: Yes, me too.

Mehta: But it’s good to learn on the job.

Dudamel: Wow!

Centennial Birthday Celebration
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $133-$334 (subject to change, very limited availability)

Info: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com


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