Is Gustavo Dudamel's Star Falling?

It is not always advisable to believe the hype. Or we should at least be on guard for hype to be proved insufficient. In the case of Gustavo Dudamel—the 29-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind who took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season—it’s a lesson that has been largely forgotten. Little else can explain the intense backlash the young conductor has experienced of late, or the reflexive rear-guard defense mounted by his supporters. When negative reactions to Dudamel’s recent U.S. East Coast tour started pouring in—with performances reportedly “half-formed” and “a disappointment”—NPR’s Web site jumped in to tell everyone to cut it out. The conductor’s hometown paper wondered if it was just an East Coast case of everyone being insufferably bitter and East Coast-ish.

A look back at Dudamel’s short tenure in the U.S. is instructive. In 2008, when Dudamel was named the L.A. Phil’s next music director, the publicity bonanza was swiftly harvested. The TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes profiled him in a piece called “Gustavo the Great,” which opened with the line “Who’s the world’s greatest conductor?” (Remember, The Dude was 28 at the time.) The L.A. Phil (understandably) declined to look a gift horse in the mouth and played the hype for all it was worth. (That means gala premieres at the Hollywood Bowl with Tom Hanks and Quincy Jones in the audience-cutaway shots.) Meanwhile, the fact that the New York Philharmonic was also preparing for the arrival of an exciting, though slightly older (and less photogenic) conductor, Alan Gilbert, was not as breathlessly reported. Dudamel isn’t all of a sudden a bad conductor. But he probably shouldn’t have been confirmed by the media as the Pope of Classical Music, either. While we’re at it, I’ll propose that we all stop talking about his frizzy hair, and his “energy,” and his “passion.” Many conductors have two out of three of these traits. Worse, these kinds of descriptions are all terribly boring, since we’ve read them over and over again.

I didn’t catch Dudamel on his East Coast swing. I was listening to my hometown orchestra’s Stravinsky festival, conducted by the Russian master Valery Gergiev. (He’s balding but great, FYI.) And in May, I took in Gilbert’s ambitious—and stunning—production of the György Ligeti opera Le Grand Macabre. Next, I checked in with a source at the New York Philharmonic. Earlier this year, under Gilbert’s direction, it became the first American orchestra to serve iTunes with a comprehensive (if not complete) series of recordings from its season in progress. At $150, it’s a steep ticket, but you get the equivalent of 30 CDs of music to download at a high bit rate (think of it as $5 per album). I’ve been enjoying the series and asked the Philharmonic whether it broke even on the deal. The answer: about 500 people have paid for the full service. The source said that the gross of $75,000, while not Justin Bieber–level money, covered the costs of recording and licensing, and that the N.Y. Phil plans to do it all again next season. Dudamel and the L.A. Phil, for their part, have put up two different iTunes-only albums this season, both from its inaugural concert. The Mahler one is good, though of greater note is the fact that the orchestra’s satisfying premiere of John Adams’s City Noir has been turned around so quickly, and at $3.99. (Usually, modern premieres languish for years before being recorded.)

Finally, to review. Dudamel: still good, if uneven (and still young). Only going to get stronger as he ages. Alan Gilbert: less attractive than Dudamel, but actually doing more concrete things to revolutionize what an American orchestra performs and how it gets that music out to the wider public. And since we’re lucky to have both of them contributing to America’s musical culture right now, please try to play nice, everyone.

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