Gustavo Dudamel photo by Sylvia Lleli. All photos courtesy of LA Philharmonic
Glad All Over
The musicians of the LA Philharmonic agree: Gustavo Dudamel lives up to the hype. And they couldn’t be happier.
By Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor
“I’ve never been to a classical show before,” I overheard a young woman say during the live simulcast of Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural performance with the LA Philharmonic. Her eyes, like everyone else’s, were transfixed on the hypnotic girations of the young conductor as his image danced across the multiple TV screens throughout the Music Center Plaza. “This is pretty cool.”
This seems to be the consensus among the musicians of the LA Philharmonic about their new music director as well. The exuberant 28-year-old conductor from Venezuela, now at the helm of one of the most revered orchestras in the world, has stirred the entire city into a frenzy of unparalleled excitement. And not just in the classical world. People all over the city, from all walks of life, are taking an unprecedented interest in the phenomenon that is Gustavo.
Beyond the Hype
Much credit must go to the LA Phil marketing department for capitalizing on Dudamel’s rock-star-like ability to capture the public’s interest. But the buzz doesn’t end with the marketing machine.
“They’re not manufacturing interest,” said Dennis Trembly, principal bassist who has been with the LA Philharmonic since 1970. “They’re not hyping a mediocre commodity. He’s the real deal, so he’s easy to sell. The marketing people get the attention of the general public who never otherwise cared about the Philharmonic, but once they’ve got that attention, if Dudamel wasn’t justifying the raves, people would immediately lose interest. Once they’re exposed to him, the response and the enthusiasm is genuine on the public’s part.”
“I think from the audience point of view he’s probably a lot of fun just to watch,” said Barry Gold, a cellist with the orchestra for the past 27 seasons. “He’s very active on the podium. My wife often says when he’s conducting it’s like he’s dancing salsa or something. The sounds just permeate his body, it resonates his whole being, so he’s moving to the music. He’s just so full of enthusiasm, and when you combine that with this great ability that he has, it’s really unique.”
“I think we’re riding a tidal wave of a lot of media right now,” said personnel manager Jeff Neville, who also sometimes performs trombone with the orchestra. “But there’s a lot there to back it up, because if there wasn’t that would fizzle out really fast in this business. It’s just growing. The fact that with his background, coming out of the El Sistema program in Venezuela, and that he started to conduct an orchestra down there at age 15, I think the development and the mentors that he’s had in that program really got to him because of his down-to-earth personality. There’s this humbleness that he has. I can’t think of another 28-year-old person who would be music director of a world-class orchestra.”
Who is This Guy?
Having begun his conducting career at age 15, Dudamel honed his skills, while still a teenager, as conductor of his native Venezuela’s Simón Bolivar National Youth Orchestra. He made his U.S. conducting debut with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2005, and in April 2007, during a guest conducting engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel was named the LA Phil’s next music director. In September he succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen in the 2009-2010 season, conducting two unprecedented inaugural concerts with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall in October.
Now in its 91st season, the LA Philharmonic has seen its fair share of music conductors. Walter Henry Rothwell became the symphony’s first music director in 1919, followed by 10 more renowned conductors serving at the helm of what has become recognized as one of the world’s foremost orchestras. And while the Los Angeles Philharmonic has long been regarded as one of the most contemporary and innovative orchestras in the world, the arrival of Dudamel has, in no uncertain terms, given the orchestra an added measure of repute.
“It’s one thing to hear the buzz about a conductor beforehand, and in our line of work we tend to distrust that,” said clarinetist David Howard who’s played with the orchestra for 28 years. “But the actual experience with Gustavo is magnificent. When I meet people who find out what I do for a living, they say, ‘Oh, that must be wonderful.’ And yeah, it is wonderful… but this is wonderful.”
A Touch of Apprehension…
Despite the bravado about Dudamel, replacing Salonen, who led the orchestra for 17 seasons, naturally caused some level of uncertainty for the orchestra — especially with contract negotiations taking place at the same time, having been completed just last month.
“Obviously when you change music directors there’s always a little apprehension because we have a new boss on the podium,” Neville said. “They’ve been used to Esa-Pekka for the last 17 years and they knew what to expect from him, and now all of a sudden we have a new boss, and this boss does not have a track record behind him. So it’s kind of like they’re out setting new breaking ground.
“All the musicians were very nervous because of the economic environment that we’re all experiencing at this particular time,” Neville continued. “But riding the wave of the expectation of Gustavo over the last couple of years has really generated, economically, a positive force for this orchestra.”
How They Got Him
The move to get Dudamel to Los Angeles happened largely under wraps. It was so secretive that only a few members of the orchestra even knew the search for a new music conductor was on.
“It wasn’t publicized that we were in this search because Esa-Pekka hadn’t announced that he was leaving,” Neville said. “Esa-Pekka was committed to making sure that this orchestra was handed over to the right person, so a lot of things happened underneath the surface. There were members of the orchestra too that didn’t necessarily know this was going on. It was basically handled on the committee level.”
The orchestra’s Artistic Liaison Committee, made up of elected orchestra members, played a key role in the push for the organization to snatch up Dudamel as quickly as possible.
“In the search process in trying to get Gustavo here, the musicians worked with Deborah (Borda, LA Philharmonic President/CEO) and management and the board in bringing him here,” Neville said. “The musicians were a very important part of that, because Gustavo didn’t want to come to a place where he was not necessarily welcomed or did not have the input from the players. In some orchestras, all of a sudden an announcement is made, ‘This is our new music director,’ and the musicians really haven’t had the input that they should have.”
“Gustavo’s ratings were so extraordinarily unanimous and enthusiastic that neither Deborah nor the committee had to convince each other that they’d better take this seriously and act fast to acquire this person,” Trembly said.
“The fact that we collectively, the management as well as the orchestra, found Gustavo and literally watched his meteor rise over these last several years, and the fact that we moved ahead as quickly as we did to pursue him and woo him and get him to come here, has been very exciting for us,” Neville said.
The enthusiasm surrounding Dudamel goes beyond just what’s generated by the media. Every member of the orchestra we spoke with expressed having experienced a palpable energy they say emanates from within the young conductor.
“You can’t ignore it,” Trembly said. “It radiates toward you. He enfolds you with his energy. It’s almost an intoxication.”
“He wants 100 percent from people all the time,” Neville said. “He’s driving himself along those lines but he also expects the response from the orchestra as well.”
“It’s very inspirational,” Gold said. “We want to go to that place that he’s trying to take us. With him it feels so collaborative. With every conductor we try and do our best to focus in on their directions and where they want the orchestra to go musically, but with Gustavo, he’s coming from such a unique place that’s full of energy, and love of course. Every note has to have this… meaning.”
The saying “you give what you get” plays out in a very real way in the symphonic world. When the stars align just right, what a music director puts out will come back from the orchestra. In Dudamel’s case, it’s working.
“His enthusiasm is the overriding quality of him,” Trembly said. “It’s genuine, sincere, intense enthusiasm, and that’s wonderful to be around. He loves music and what music can do for people, and he loves people.”
This love of people is real; Gustavo regularly hugs the musicians during rehearsals. His personality fits right in with the positive atmosphere the orchestra members have enjoyed for years.
“You really sense from your colleagues that they are giving for Gustavo 150 percent,” Gold said. “And the camaraderie offstage has always been there. It’s a very friendly orchestra to be in from my perspective. When Gustavo’s offstage he’s very friendly, extremely approachable, he doesn’t go off and function in his ivory tower. He likes to be there for us.”
So Happy Together
A music director’s dynamic with the orchestra is a crucial part of the overall organization’s success. So far, the musicians of the LA Philharmonic don’t seem to have any complaints about Gustavo.
“What most people look for in a conductor is clarity in ideas and the technique to describe what he wants to the orchestra,” said first violinist Mitch Newman, who’s been with the LA Phil since 1987. “And not to only communicate that verbally, but with their gestures and body. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with the baton, but with something that lets the orchestra know exactly what the conductor wants. Gustavo does very, very well with that. He works very hard when he’s there. He’s completely involved in what he’s doing.”
“With Esa-Pekka it was all about clarity and the proper balances,” Gold said. “With Gustavo, that’s an important ingredient, but he takes that mixture and tries to throw in a little bit more seasoning that he has being Latin. There’s more of a hot-blooded feeling. He’s going for a different type of sound. And being a string player himself, he really lets us play. Even in the softest dynamic, he’s constantly saying, ‘Play forte with the left hand, but pianissimo with the bow.’ So the intensity of the sound is always there.”
“He’s definitely after a certain sound depending on what piece he’s working on,” Neville said. “He really works on it until he gets the sound that he wants, and if one way he’s trying to explain what he wants doesn’t necessarily work he finds another way. It’s not a demanding way from him to the musicians; it’s a very ‘work with me on this’ approach. Because he asks things in a very down to earth, one-on-one basis, he gets a wonderful response from the players. The musicians want to work with somebody like that, and it’s enjoyable because they obviously want to play the best they can.”
“To Gustavo, music means more to him than just an art form,” Newman said. “It’s a way of communicating. And he’s a great communicator. I don’t think to him it matters what kind of music it is, as long as he’s able to bring something to life and have a group of people, like an orchestra, touch another group of people.”
“In this day and age, a music director really has to be more than just a person on a podium, he has to be a personality in the community,” said John Lofton, who was appointed bass trombonist two seasons ago. “Dudamel is in a situation where he has much of the charisma and desire to really connect with people. He really wants to be considered ‘one of us,’ the musicians, and really work with us to make really good music. And he does seem to have this desire to be a part of the community, to reach out and help young people experience some of the joy that he experiences in the music business. Something about that really transcends across the stage and to the actual people. That’s what he’s really been very effective at; bridging that perceived gap.”
“In these troubled financial times for the nation, for our orchestra in this troubled profession right now to be at such a solid footing, financially, artistically, and in the community, and having this wonderful concert hall to work in, the stars are all aligned,” Trembly said. “All the factors are positive for us. We’re very, very fortunate.”
Published in the November 2009 issue of the Overture, official publication of Professional Musicians, Local 47.