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The Man!… The Music!… The HAIR!

August 19, 2010

  Well, he did it. Gustavo Dudamel survived the breathless anticipation and the rock star fervor and the intense scrutiny of his inaugural season as conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (LAPO).  And by all accounts, what a season it’s been, culminating in a coast-to-coast US tour in May, and several fireball performances at the Hollywood Bowl just a couple of weeks ago.

Boundlessly energetic, ridiculously talented, and conceivably the poster boy for infectious enthusiasm and fine salon hair products, he seems to have made the most of it by getting the rafters ringing – with music, and applause, and an excitement so electric that you’d think he’d invented the light bulb.

His arrival in L.A. last October was a pretty big deal in a town that makes its business out of making big deals out of things.  The city celebrated Dudamel as the orchestra’s 11th Music Director in wild, star-studded, fanfare fashion, and since then “Dudamania” seems to have only gotten sweeter. 

This YouTube gives an idea of how it went down:

Still, this year wasn’t without critics.  But even they often wrote about Dudamel with uncharacteristically blushing favor and grace.  Here’s a bit of what the L.A.Times music critic, Mark Swed, had to say about the first season.

Judged by the standards of a mere mortal music director, Dudamel had a remarkable first season.  He delivered many exciting performances and a couple of great ones.  He took chances and cheerfully flew, more than once, by the seat of his pants.  He has a lot yet to learn.  He may be experiencing growing pains (and ones that will continue for a while).  Nothing remotely conclusive can be said about him at this point….

Dudamel is always on.  He phones in nothing.  He conducts in a state of awe and gusto.  He takes risks.  He values sound — rich, expressive, magical sound — over structure, and he loves to push the envelope.  His energy supply would be the envy of nations.

But these aren’t qualities that everyone in this field admires, as might be gathered from some of the reviews of the U.S. tour.  While most of the musicians in the orchestra adore him, a few complain that Dudamel belabors points.  They miss Esa-Pekka Salonen’s focus and sense of organization…

No music director in America tried so much last season.  If everything wasn’t brilliant, there was also the sheer pleasure of never knowing what to expect, not only from program to program but from night to night.  Dudamel was always experimenting, always learning.
(For full article, click here.)

 International eyes have been closely following Dudamel’s first L.A. season, a to-be-expected reaction considering the young conductor’s meteoric rise to fame since the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (a product of the Venezuelan “El Sistema” music education program) put him on the world podium.  Now Dudamel and the LAPO are giving classical music a renewed global platform – and getting a response, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a while.

Part of that might be rooted in Dudamel’s personality being larger than life.  He comes across like a living emoticon, punching the straightest lines with feeling and technicolor, attacking their depths without reservation.  And you don’t for a second feel that he’s having anything less than the time of his life.

It’s hard to stay apathetic to the music in light of that kind of energy.  However, for us listeners, it’s a fine line between falling into what Esa-Pekka Salonen (ironically, Dudamel’s LAPO predecessor) once called the “empty hype” of conductor worship, and greatly appreciating what someone brings to the art form.  Dudamel is still young in his career and has a lot of growth ahead of him before he fully comes into his own, but given his beginnings, I’m eager to see what that might look like.  So I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someday I’ll get to witness him with my own ears.  

On a side note:  No doubt the guy has dynamite in his DNA, but he’s taken the art of explosive grimacing to a whole new level.  I think 99% of the online photos of him conducting make him look like a savage maniac ready for take-off.  Would he be anywhere as interesting to watch if he didn’t make those Dude-faces though??

Here is the encore of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s famous 2007 Proms debut.  I love the audience (and orchestra) reaction.  So much for British “reserve”.  The pieces start at 3:20 and 7:15 (watch the 2nd if you only have time for one):


PS. Silly thing – did you know that if you anagram “Gustavo Dudamel” you get “vague modal stud”?  Vague?  Nothing vague about him…


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