May 12, 2010 7:30 Symphony Hall- Phoenix, Arizona.
While there are mixed reviews about the ever popular Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel no one can argue with the amount of energy and renewed excitement he and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have brought to concert halls across the country this year. Regularly playing for sold out venues, this young conductor is creating renewed interest and vitality in classical concert life. In the current economic climate sincere concern over the future of our country’s orchestras has left the need for a young, dynamic figure to create a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the symphony.
I attended the Phoenix concert, which was the second stop on their eight city tour occurring at Symphony Hall on May 12, 2010. This performance featured Mahler’s First Symphony and John Adam’s City Noir. As a musician this performance was equally as inspiring musically as it was socially. I have enjoyed many moving performances throughout my life, but have always left with a small sense of disappointment realizing the lack of others from my generation in attendance. Sure, there were other young musicians there, like myself, but it raised concern about the future of the symphony orchestra and who exactly our future audience would be. The performance I experienced with Dudamel and the LA Phil left me with hope. Critics can say what they will but no one can argue with the amount of energy and excitement felt in that hall. The audience roared with applause even before the first orchestra played a note and demanded nine curtain calls at the conclusion of the concert! If my eyes were closed I could have sworn I was sitting in the crowd of a final four NCAA tournament game.
I was fortunate enough to gain insight from Dr. Timothy McAllister Professor of Saxophone at Arizona State University. Dr. McAllister performed with the LA Phil on their eight city tour as a featured soloist for John Adam’s City Noir. I was curious what it was like to work with Dudamel in a rehearsal settings, what it was like touring with the orchestra, and what he thought of the often mixed reviews of the LA Phil/Dudamel’s performances. Here are his thoughts:
It was exhilarating being a part of Gustavo Dudamel’s Inaugural Concert and Season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Performing John Adams City Noir, commissioned for this occasion, was amazing, the energy almost palpable from Dudamel’s first downbeat. The rehearsals were charged immediately, and the orchestra seemed fresh, open, and inspired—something you don’t always experience when playing inside a typical symphony orchestra.
What struck me in the first rehearsal of the Adams (which was the first piece rehearsed in the first rehearsal of Dudamel’s tenure) was how well-prepared the young Maestro was with the difficult score, and, interestingly, how much of an ‘old soul’ he seemed to me. I didn’t view him as being one of the youngest people on stage; he appeared seasoned and wise. I, myself, was nervous—naturally being the ‘outsider’, a normal position for any saxophonist—and my part was very challenging and highly exposed, but I somehow knew I could count on Dudamel to be there when I needed him—cues, clear patterns, stylistic information within the gesture—and he didn’t fail me.
Dudamel’s rehearsal demeanor is no different than in his performances, really. He truly puts every ounce of his energy into showing the orchestra what he wants, and he covers vast chunks of music without much verbal commentary or coaching. This is perhaps necessary due to his, still, small language barrier; however, I would say that the conducting is filled with imagery, detail, and inspiration for those that look for that in a conductor. When correcting a certain passage he would typically repeat sections, possibly slower, in order to allow the musicians a moment to sort out, aurally, what needed to be fixed, often without much input from him. Being a violinist, Dudamel certainly offers his greatest constructive comments towards the strings in rehearsal. What I learned from orchestra members throughout the season was that the primary differences between Dudamel and previous Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen reside within rehearsal techniques/strategies; but, where Maestro Salonen demanded certain meticulous qualities from the orchestra, it would seem that Dudamel brings the orchestra along for a visceral ride. Possibly a classic ‘Apollonian’ vs. ‘Dionysian’ debate—if you will—that might arise between European and South American ideologies, but I don’t feel qualified to adequately compare the two conductors.
The orchestra’s May 2010 Tour was one of the longest for the group in recent years, and the repertoire covered works from Tchaikovsky and Mahler to Bernstein and Adams, along with several encores. The concerts were amazing and every hall was sold out. Although I didn’t perform the Adams on every concert, the schedule was grueling for everyone involved. It was baffling that some of the reviews were mixed throughout the country. What I witnessed each night were exuberant audiences jumping to their feet after the final notes, and, in most cases, demanding multiple encores and countless curtain calls. I can tell you that touring and performing in different (often poorly designed) halls every night can be hard on any player, and imperfections are part of live performance. Some critics commented on the LA Phil possibly being somewhat ‘spoiled’ due to the amazing facility that is Walt Disney Hall, and perhaps that is true; but, the real truth is that there are some awful concert halls throughout the country, even some of the more famous ones. It is difficult for an orchestra to immediately adapt to poor acoustics with minimal or no time for a soundcheck, and it appeared the more negative reviewers attacked Dudamel on such issues as blend, balance, and overall orchestral sonority—somehow weaknesses attributed to Dudamel’s ‘lack of experience’. Ridiculous.
Further, some critics have trouble being objective…if they were they wouldn’t really be doing their job, would they? John Adams enjoyed jabbing back at the critics a bit through his online blog (“Anger Builds at Dudamel’s Mishandling of Gulf Oil Leak”), and many of us felt that there generally was a media backlash from all the attention Dudamel has received in the last year. In fact, many of the very same critics who built him up were quick to tear him down, which often comes with celebrity on any level. Dudamel never proclaimed himself “The Savior of Classical Music” or “the greatest conductor since Bernstein”. Nor did he ask for such overwhelming media hype. He simply lives and breathes music and wishes to share his love for the symphonic artform. What comes with such passion is musical risk-taking, which critics will either view as refreshing or controversial. We can’t really fault them for that. From my viewpoint, Gustavo is a great artist who has helped invigorate a medium in need of an overhaul—I could care less if he breaks with certain traditions to genuinely achieve his musical goals.
The most exciting thing is that Gustavo is young and has an entire career ahead of him. History will decide what mark he leaves, but in the meantime, I love following what he is doing from a consumer standpoint and from that of a musician under his baton. Performing Adams’ City Noir under Gustavo all year has been a career highlight for me, and I hope I have the honor of working with him again very soon.
Love him or hate him, agree or disagree with his interpretations Gustavo Dudamel is inspiring players and audiences alike. My hope is that the level of excitement that I experienced in Symphony Hall that night will become more of a normalcy than a rarity!