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Critic's Notebook

Conducting 101

Gustavo Dudamel hones his skills without a harsh spotlight in Sweden.

June 02, 2009|Mark Swed | Music Critic

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN — On Thursday night, for the first time in his career, Gustavo Dudamel conducted Verdi's grandly operatic 90-minute Requiem here with the Gothenburg Symphony. Afterward I visited the 28-year-old conductor in his modest dressing room in the Concert Hall, a Swedish functionalist auditorium that was built in 1935 and stands proudly as part of a sternly imposing arts complex at the end of the city's main avenue. He greeted me with a sheepish smile and blurted out, "Sorry."

There had been unmistakable thrills and the occasional moment of sudden, stunning beauty, but Dudamel was thinking about the many mistakes. He had misgauged some tempos. He hadn't managed to fully hold together a long, segmented, operatic score. He hadn't realized how differently the soloists, with whom he had never worked, would sing under the pressure of a live concert from rehearsal. And he needed more time with the chorus, which was a well-prepared amateur body that sang from memory. But the members have day jobs and are available to rehearse only in the evening. Dudamel had arrived in town only two days earlier, having just made his debut with the storied Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and may have still been changing gears.

But he was, nonetheless, infectiously happy. He was ending his second season as the orchestra's music director and knew things would get better with what he called "this crazy opera" over its three-day run. They did.

Saturday afternoon I was again in Dudamel's dressing room, this time after a spectacular final matinee performance. Players filed in to thank their ebullient young maestro. The seasoned concertmaster Christer Thorvaldsson, a member of the 104-year-old ensemble for 36 years and something of a legend in Swedish orchestral circles, announced that Dudamel was the finest conductor he had ever worked with. Dudamel brought out a bottle of old Scotch.

As the classical music community well knows and as a rapidly growing general audience has been finding out, Dudamel is a sensation and pretty much still always a surprise. When he begins as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the fall, he is expected to generate a huge amount of attention, no matter how celebrity-saturated the city. But even a conducting sensation has to learn the music director business somewhere, to say nothing of a broad repertory of pieces. That's where Gothenburg comes in.

Being music director of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas for a decade is far different from heading an orchestra in Europe or America. At home Dudamel can rehearse nonprofessional young players as much as he likes, unconcerned with union regulations -- or any regulations. He knows these youngsters intimately; he grew up with many of them. They are family.

Sweden's second city, though, is a great distance geographically and culturally from Caracas. The Gothenburg Symphony is a relatively traditional institution, and its concert hall was built to be a temple to music. You enter through a very long, mundane cloak room and ascend a marble staircase, to the higher realm of art.

But Gothenburg is also a relaxed, pleasure-loving place that seems to suit Dudamel remarkably well. Cafe society is a central part of its charm. The student community is large. Sea and mountains are nearby. It is a culinary capital. This town of a half-million residents on Sweden's west coast, halfway between Copenhagen and Oslo, boasts an astonishing five Michelin-starred restaurants.

Obviously, on some level, Dudamel's presence here was a business decision. His high-powered London management is pleased to have him in this relatively obscure post where he can learn and experiment outside the international limelight.

For the orchestra -- which Neeme Jarvi headed for 22 years followed by a short three-year term with Mario Venzago -- Dudamel offered a huge dose of much-needed glamour and vitality, and it is willing to forgive a lot knowing what the final results can be. Had he given Thursday's performance in London, he would have been slaughtered by the critics. In Gothenburg, all three performances were sold out and audiences stood and cheered with the same degree of enthusiasm for each of the radically different performances.

But what Gothenburg really offers Dudamel is respite from constant attention. His guest-conducting stints in European capitals and in America draw a media circus. In Venezuela, he and his wife, Eloisa Maturen, need armed security with them at all times because of kidnapping threats.

And though Dudamel says he is not crazy about Sweden's dark, cold winters, it was sunny and warm during my stay, turning dark around 11 p.m. Here he can walk the streets, interrupted only by the occasional friendly greetings of well-wishers. He is also left in relative peace to study and work.

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