Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dude and Dilbert

When I first heard about Los Angeles Philharmonic's short American tour with Gustavo Dudamel, I knew that critics in certain cities would grab the opportunity and attack him. Granted, the orchestra may not be as refined as some other ensembles, but this is hardly news. This was the way under Esa-Pekka Salonen as well but then the group got nothing but praise. Yet my countryman hardly created such a stir as "the Dude". Clearly the orchestra doesn't play at a lower level than it did a year ago and the young dynamo on the podium creates enough energy to electrify every musician on stage and every listener in the audience.

One of the most thoughtful analyses was written by perhaps the least biased critic in America, Anne Midgette, in the Washington Post. Ms. Midgette has no ax to grind with Dudamel and sees the situation objectively, unlike the writers in some other East Coast cities. The New York Times published two reviews. In the first, Anthony Tommasini had some unflattering comments regarding the conductor and the orchestra itself. In the second, Allan Kozinn is far more complimentary. It reminded me of a pair of reviews not so long ago where the first critic attacked the NY Philharmonic's solo horn and another critic rushed to praise the player soon afterward. Again, I don't think the horn player's skills improved overnight. Critics often have their own agenda. It is understandable in a provincial city but regrettable in the country music capital. Perhaps a critic is friends with another horn player who would like to have the principal fired, demoted or at least made to retire. This is not different from a provincial "music cricket" attacking a concertmaster, in order to push a mediocre student-level violinist, his pal, to his spot. This is all done in the name of I scratch your back if you scratch mine, in other words mutual brown-nosing.

I don't think the Los Angeles Philharmonic will ever reach the level of Vienna, Berlin or Chicago. Perhaps nobody has noticed but orchestras in hot climate don't usually excel (youth groups excluded), as the climate affects any person's lifestyle, including that of a musician. For example, orchestras in Arizona, Louisiana and Florida are either in deep trouble or have vanished. A number of other states can be added to the list. Texas is an exception but few would place the Houston or Dallas groups among the true elite of orchestras. This is not just an American phenomenon: in a hot climate there are almost no ensembles worth praising other than the Israeli Philharmonic, and that group is more interesting to look at than to listen to, with so many senior members. In the Southern Hemisphere there are probably a few decent orchestras that consider themselves "World Class" but then, who doesn't? Melbourne and Sidney have very good symphonies but they are not in the top tier either; neither are orchestras in South Africa or South America. The latter has a history of loving classical music and is famous for long ovations but they lack the funds for top notch groups. Many years ago I remember reading that the orchestra in São Paulo could have a season only every other year, due to the enormous expenses of stage hands, negotiated by their union. And Paulistas and Porteños (Buenos Aires) most likely prefer opera to orchestral music. Isn't there an opera house in Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest?

But let's go back to the Dude. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that certain cities are bitter about the Angelinos snatching the young Venezuelan. No headliner really wanted the burden of becoming New York Philharmonic's new Music Director, as with all the interesting visiting groups, the orchestra belongs in the "we also have" category. So, Alan Gilbert's contract in Sweden came to an end very timely, and making him seem larger than life was left to the PR machinery, including the NY Times. He first conducted the orchestra in Central Park and got rave reviews for that performance, although seriously I doubt if any listener would have heard the difference between that group with "Dilbert" and the Cucamonga Symphony with maestro Porkanini at the helm. It was clear then that the local media wasn't going to be objective, and in the view of the Big Apple pride and difficult economic times, it is fully understandable. However, are people really that gullible that if a public figure suffers from flatulence and they hear and read comments how fragrant the odors are, they will go around sniffing the air saying ah, he had wonderful egg salad for lunch? Do they follow a maestro to the men's room and rave about the delicious aroma of asparagus in the air? "It stinks" can become a most positive experience in the hands of the media! Don't get me wrong, I wish Mr. Gilbert the best of luck in his new post, but easy it won't be, as it never was for any of his predecessors.

I haven't ever seen or heard anyone poke fun at Mr. Gilbert's looks although I'm sure a mean person could. Gustavo Dudamel has usually been described as charismatic and youthful with wild hairdo, but a Bay Area newspaper, San Jose Mercury News, described him as short and chunky in one of the first reviews of the tour. What a conductor's height has to do with his musical capabilities is beyond me. Since such body type of a Latino or Latina is stereotypical, perhaps the critic, Mr. Scheinin, was expressing his racial opinion. Who knows, he might be after a job with the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. The San Francisco concerts received mixed reviews in the media although audiences ate up the music making. The everlasting rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a funny thing. It exists in every area from finance to education to the arts. Long time ago I played in the Bay Area as a principal in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the local critic decided to write almost the entire review about our timpani player who wasn't one of our regulars. I didn't know that a nice older gentleman at the kettle drums could ruin an entire concert. This was especially strange because the poor chap was doing a fine job and only played in one piece, a symphony by Haydn or Mozart.

It would be interesting to hear Dudamel in front of another orchestra, preferably in a situation where he could work with the group for several concerts and would learn to know its strengths and weaknesses. He did remarkable work with the enthusiastic young players in Caracas. While watching them perform my large computer monitor sent out sparks. The same excitement didn't quite happen with the Swedes in Gothenburg, but they would probably need a few portions of Akvavit to make that materialize and by then the musicians might fall off their chairs.
in photos Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert