A commenter with the incredibly controversial handle “against pedophiles” wondered about my thoughts on Gustavo Dudamel in this old post about Eivind Gullberg Jensen being the worst conductor in the universe. That post has managed to stand the test of time a bit, presumably because the rhetoric is so harsh. By way of meaningless update, I haven’t listened to any of Jensen’s work since that post, although I’ve threatened to on a couple occasions. Jensen is not nearly as ubiquitous a presence as Dudamel, and his performances are a bit easier to duck if you’re careful. At this point it’s almost impossible not to encounter Dudamel if you have any interest in the performance of orchestral music in the year the Mayans are going to kill us all.
So what are my thoughts on Gustavo Dudamel? First, I hate his guts because he has an absolute empire of forceful hair that makes me seethe with fury as I look in the mirror at my own receding locks. Second, I hate his guts because he conducts every single great orchestra on the planet in a frantic revolving cycle that would make a prostitute stop for a breather and a glass of juice. Third, I hate his guts because he has a terrific marriage to a lovely woman and they have a leather chaise lounge with ornate scrollwork and maybe own their own giant park so they can take nauseatingly touching pictures like this:
But I’d be lying if I said I hated his conducting. I used to. When he first arrived on the scene, I was still studying conducting myself and was driven completely nuts by his approach, mostly because it was the exact opposite of my own in that it was a) flamboyant and showy and b) actually successful. I wouldn’t say I was jealous, because not only weren’t we in the same league, we weren’t even playing the same sport – it would be like being jealous of Justin Timberlake or President Obama or Jesus. But at that time in my life I wasn’t into extravagant music-making (I still prefer the restrained and focused approach of my favorites like Suitner or Kondrashin), and here was a 26-year-old kid (so was I, but that’s not the point) who made Bernstein look like he studied conducting in a monastery. The Sideshow Bob jokes flowed freely and I dutifully went about hating on him for his theatrics and his questionable musical decisions.
I’m not entirely sure when my opinion on the entire idea of flashy conducting shifted to a more reasonable one, but it started with Bernstein. As I wrote a ways back, Bernstein can drive you crazy with his extraneous bullshit, but he can also take you places that literally no one else can. Gustavo Dudamel is obviously not in that class. Yet. But the rapport he has with the musicians under his baton is undeniable, and their passion and enthusiasm feels as real as can be ascertained from the distance of 2000 miles and a reasonably fast internet connection. A Dudamel performance never seems to lack energy, and that’s a tougher element to achieve than we tend to think.
I went to my local movie theater a couple months ago to watch the broadcast of Dudamel leading his two primary bands (the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar) and a gargantuan chorus in a performance of Mahler 8, and that too was something of a tipping point in my opinion on his conducting. Gone were many of the shaky interpretive choices and the reckless abandonment of the printed page, and in their place was a focused, controlled performance that was really wonderfully executed (in spite of some sketchy singing, IMO, but that’s a story for another day). Now, in truth, Mahler 8 forces your hand a little bit when it comes to interpretive freedom. You’re not going to be able to mess around with tempi and phrasing too much because of the overwhelming number of people you have to get on the same page musically – if you can succeed in shaping the lines and making the textures transparent, you’re already well on your way to doing a great job. Nevertheless, he did that and then some, and it was one of the finest performances of that work I have heard.
The fascination with young conductors over the last several years has been pretty interesting in some sense, because it always felt like an old man’s game. Suddenly we started equating youth with vibrancy and thought that’s what we needed (even though the most vibrant performances I hear nowadays come from 72-year-old Walter Weller). And it’s not that they DON’T have valid approaches, but when you hear Dudamel conduct Mahler 1 and then hear Michael Tilson Thomas conduct Mahler 1, you have a pretty good idea about who’s been around the block enough to know what’s what.
None of this, however, means that Dudamel (or Nelsons or Nezet-Seguin or whoever) is a finished product, and perhaps that’s the most optimistic prism through which to view him. I still find Dudamel to make decision I don’t agree with or miss the emotional gravity of a piece I love or whatever else, but at the end of the day he’s 31 years old. How will his music-making sound 25 years from now? His physical abilities shouldn’t be diminished too much, and he will have had a quarter-century of development as a musician and interpreter. And THAT’S what’s exciting to me: the possibility that he represents. People evolve over time. Pierre Boulez was an unrepentant dick in the ’50’s and ’60’s who thought that anything but the avant-garde was bullshit, and now he’s like your friendly grampa only instead of gardening and taking his grandkids to Wendy’s on Saturdays, he’s correcting balances and perfecting intonation with the Vienna Philharmonic and performing Bruckner. The thought of Dudamel circa 2046 makes me feel much better about Dudamel circa now.