Gustavo Dudamel can't conduct himself as the savior of classical music

CRITICIZED: Los Angeles Philharmonic's Gustavo Dudamel.
CRITICIZED: Los Angeles Philharmonic's Gustavo Dudamel. (Urs Flueeler - Key)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

I've been amused, and I'm not the only one, to read all of the critical backlash against Gustavo Dudamel on his recent American tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, the discovery has been made that Dudamel does, in fact, have feet of clay. His conducting can be uneven, superficial, moment-to-moment.

Each assessment stresses that this wouldn't matter so much were it not that Dudamel is being billed as the future of classical music.

Here's the thing, though: Dudamel is not the future of classical music. He's not even trying to be. The people who are trying to move classical music into the future are thinking about alternate kinds of programming, new venues, different repertory. (See, for instance, Alan Gilbert's series of YouTube videos in which the New York Philharmonic music director pals around with Death, a character in Ligeti's "Grand Macabre," which the orchestra is performing.)

This isn't really Dudamel's style. He is a hugely charismatic and hugely talented guy, and people are hoping that can be harnessed into a new energy for the field and into attracting new audiences. I hope it can, though I'm not sure how many people outside the field are actually aware of Dudamel.

But Dudamel's whole training appears to have been about perpetuating the status quo -- about the idea that leading an orchestra in standard repertoire is the highest thing to which a musician can aspire. I think this is one reason he's been so exciting to many people in the field: He represents a future without radical change; a younger generation that can groove to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven; children saved from ignorance and poverty by the beauties of the core classical repertory (the premise of El Sistema, the Venezuelan music-training system that spawned him and that he's actively promoting in Los Angeles). Yes, he's exploring new music in his programming to a certain degree, but that isn't what has gotten people excited about him.

I don't see how Dudamel represents a new beginning for classical music unless we can spawn a whole crop of other similarly exciting 20-somethings. What he represents is a revivifying jolt of energy applied to the established model -- something that's sorely needed, and that's wonderful to see.

The irony in the current bout of criticism is that Dudamel has in the past seemed to me less individual, or more at risk of falling into trained-monkey syndrome (using his talent to execute what he was told others expected of him) than he did in the most recent L.A. concerts. The question has always been whether he would be able to bring his own voice and personality to his work: The "Pathétique" showed me, at least, that the answer is yes. Uneven? Of course. Dudamel's great strengths are wild, untrammeled energy combined with visceral talent, and that's pretty much a recipe for unevenness. Is he an orchestra builder? Not yet; the critics, including myself, have pointed out all of the L.A. players' technical weaknesses. But his "Pathétique," in Washington, sounded like the work of a conductor who has something to say, and I was willing to take the bumps on the way to hearing it. (From the reaction of my colleagues to his "Pathétique" in other cities, I'd also say that Washington may have represented a particularly good night.)

He's a scarily talented young conductor who has been thrust into the position of acting as music's savior. Now, he's learning the next step of his trade, in the public eye. But whether he learns to become a real orchestra builder with L.A. or continues to be erratic, it's going to take more than even Dudamel at his best to keep classical music vital in the 21st century.

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