When people turn their backs to you, they’re sending a clear message. The sight of a conductor’s back is an unmistakable sign that his presence onstage isn’t primarily for the audience. He is there to guide the orchestra through the intricacies of a piece of music. Yes, he’s aware he’s onstage, but any theatrics are collateral.
This isn’t to suggest that conductors are a self-effacing breed. Leonard Bernstein, with his dashing flamboyance readily soaring into the sublime, was always a prominent part of the symphonic show. In the case of Gustavo Dudamel, the galvanizing music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who has excited classical music aficionados the way Tiger Woods once roused golf fans, the sight of his dark curly locks sailing in the orchestral breeze of Walt Disney Concert Hall is indisputably part of the main attraction.
Watching Dudamel trace parabolas in the air with his baton, sometimes with body English, sometimes with concentrated stillness, is a singular theatrical experience. Whenever a visiting theater-lover asks for recommendations from me, I invariably suggest a trip to Disney Hall or the Hollywood Bowl if the Venezuelan maestro is in session.
Diffident when addressing the audience in his charmingly accented English (he seemed rather bashful in the few remarks he made during the opening night gala concert in September at Disney Hall), he is an uninhibited tour de force once the music erupts.
Dynamic close-ups of Dudamel’s fervent face projected onto giant screens at the Bowl lend his alfresco concerts a Spielbergian frisson. Indoors, he’s somewhat more restrained but no less impassioned.
Dramatic gestural flourishes and intense emotive expressiveness are pretty much guaranteed. Depending on the piece he’s conducting, Dudamel’s performance can also feature quite a bit of spontaneous choreography. His South American style absorbs rhythm corporeally, but he never falls into showboating. He puts himself — heart, mind and body — at the service of the music.
USC music and journalism professor and former Washington Post music critic Tim Page believes this to be the main ingredient of Dudamel’s success. The theatrics, however captivating, are secondary
“Conducting is a vast mystery,” Page says. “You have someone like Leonard Bernstein, who conducted as if he were in a state of incredible ecstasy, and then you have someone like Pierre Boulez, who conducted as if he were a bank teller making change. Both have gotten spectacular results from orchestras. It’s hard to define what will make a great conductor. There are some conductors who look thrilling but nothing really happens with the musicians. It’s not enough to be handsome, dynamic, trim or balletic.”
Still, Page acknowledges that Dudamel’s stage presence is riveting: “There’s all that hair, there’s the youth, the vigor. It is terrific theater. However, it also communicates to the musicians.”
The composer and critic Virgil Thomson once said of Bernstein that he’s a little excessive but if you close your eyes you can still listen to him. Page says he feels the same way about Dudamel: “He’s exciting to watch, but he also manages to convey that excitement to the orchestra. I have heard him conduct a sloppy performance from time to time, but I’ve never heard him conduct a dull one.”
Part of the enjoyment of listening to Dudamel is watching how he gets his exquisite results. He animates the enigma of conducting, bringing it to life with body language that elucidates the unique attributes of a given piece of music almost as much for the audience as for the orchestra.
Dudamel’s demeanor when conducting Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was radically different than it was during his sinewy handling of the composer’s “Eroica.” The conductor, ever gracious, wasn’t simply conceding the stage to pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. As Times music critic Mark Swed pointed out in his review, Dudamel’s “fortes with the orchestra were real fortes,” and the last movement, gutsily executed, “almost seemed to throw the pianist slightly off and kept a listener on the edge of his seat.”
There’s nothing retiring about Dudamel — his musical personality isn’t recessive in the least. But he adjusts himself, chameleon-like, to the composition, shuttling the focus to where it ought to be.
Naturally, the spotlight for the Beethoven piano concert was trained on Andsnes’ lithe pianism. When ushers let in some clattering latecomers between movements, Dudamel held back as though in apology to his guest, who closed his piano in mock annoyance. This half of the concert belonged to Andsnes, even if Dudamel could be counted on to provide more than pedestrian orchestral accompaniment.
“Eroica” brought Dudamel and the orchestra to the fore, and the muscularity of his approach — arms soaring, knees readying for a leap, head leaning forward as though charging into battle — conspicuously raised the theatrical temperature of the evening. In both the slow and speedy movements, there was greater freedom in his physicality — the muscle memory of his recent recording of “Eroica” made in Caracas with his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela no doubt facilitating his limber line of attack.
Perhaps the most suspenseful Dudamel display this fall was his conducting of “The Rite of Spring.” If he were suffering any anxiety of influence about executing a piece triumphantly associated with his predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, there was no sign of it once Stravinsky sounded his revolutionary call.
Conducting as he so often does from memory, his body unencumbered by a music stand, Dudamel simultaneously bore the fixed look of a mathematician following an elusive equation into shadowy realms and the physical elation of a dancer completing the puzzle of some Merce Cunningham choreography. By the end, Dudamel’s exhaustion was visible — the mental and athletic expenditure of renewing Stravinsky’s trailblazing composition brought him to some Olympian limit. The audience properly remunerated this superhuman effort with a stadium-sized roar.
Dudamel excels at the big finishes, but he’s equally adroit with the quieter moments. He can expertly pin down silence, extending a John Adams hush with the same conducting intensity he summons for a Mahler crescendo. The image of him as a kind of yoga master in formal black with arms outstretched to a musician, whose note is permitted to fade into oblivion, allows stillness to sing.
This season Dudamel has been called upon to perform in more traditionally theatrical ways. At the gala opening concert, he was asked for directions by a few sailors on leave in the Big Apple in one of the three dance episodes from “On the Town” choreographed by Josh Rhodes. And during the concert staging of “Where the Wild Things Are,” the operatic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book with music by Oliver Knussen and video by director and designer Netia Jones, Dudamel shadowed the monsters appearing on screen, brandishing his baton with flashy menace as these fearsome creatures marched before the astonished young Max (played by Claire Booth).
But I would call this incidental stage business. The true theatricality is Dudamel doing what he does best: eliciting the finest sound from his orchestra.
Of course, the growing reputation of this still impossibly young 31-year-old conductor isn’t immaterial to this pursuit. His commitment to education, his mentorship of young musicians from underserved communities, his determination to expand the repertoire in challenging ways and his comfort with classical music making direct contact with the other arts all add texture to his inspirational leadership.
“A young Latino as music director of this town’s greatest orchestra is a wonderful invitation,” says Page. “People who don’t usually attend symphony concerts are … the ones who are likely to be energized by the shaking and dancing … . If he’s becoming more restrained … , part of that may be confidence. Like it or not, he’s becoming an old pro.”
An old pro with a conducting flair that is one of the most enthralling spectacles on any stage right now in our city.