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Gustavo Dudamel and Alan Gilbert: a maestro mano a mano

Critic's notebook: Comparing the Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic music directors is irresistible and entertaining. They share a common influence: Esa-Pekka Salonen.

November 09, 2009|Mark Swed | Music Critic

Last month, New York's public radio station WNYC hosted what it billed as a Los Angeles-versus-New York conductor "smackdown."

On one side, a controversial British music critic went to bat for Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's effervescent 28-year-old music director. On the other, the producer of the New York Philharmonic's radio broadcasts defended her orchestra's measured, conscientious 42-year-old music director, Alan Gilbert.

Norman Lebrecht praised Dudamel for driving orchestras into a kind of ferocity, in contrast with the "dull" Gilbert. Noting Gilbert's previous gig heading the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for eight years, Lebrecht opined, "It was a third-rate orchestra when he started and it was a third-rate orchestra when he left."

Gilbert's champion, Limor Tomer, countered by dismissing Dudamel's opening-night conducting of Mahler's First Symphony as a collection of bad habits. The New York Philharmonic's playing was pristine on its opening night beneath Gilbert's baton, she said. Tomer even took a shot at the curly-headed Venezuelan's unruly mane. "The hair thing," she sniffed, "will only take you so far."

Much of the debate was entertainingly half-baked. No one on it, including host John Schaefer, had actually witnessed Dudamel live in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, it was emblematic of the irresistible temptation many in the media and blogosphere have to pit Gilbert, music director of America's oldest symphony orchestra, against Dudamel, leader of the ensemble many critics now regard as the model for the 21st century. Both men debuted in their new posts this fall.

Ironically, such debates overlook the point that both orchestras have much more in common today than the last time a version of this cross-country musical matchup occurred: 30 years ago when the New York Philharmonic hired Zubin Mehta away from L.A. In fact, the spiritual godfather of both new conductors may be Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has influenced and empowered Dudamel and Gilbert to follow the groundbreaking path he cut during his just-ended 17-year directorship of the L.A. Philharmonic.

The rivalry, such as it is, is not so much between the conductors themselves -- Dudamel and Gilbert are said to be friends (at least for now) -- as yet another coast-versus-coast cultural skirmish. Dudamel has been getting the lion's share of attention. New Yorkers are envious. Angelenos, losing out in baseball to those Yankees, are glad for something to gloat about.

In our dugout, then, is a dazzling Venezuelan who attracts a large and diverse new audience. He has the potential to reshape the cultural landscape of Los Angeles through his advocacy of music education and obvious connection to Southern California's Spanish-speaking millions. He is a delight to watch and fabulously photogenic. Musicians are maybe even more mesmerized by him than are audiences. He is already one of the conductors most in demand anywhere.

Gilbert, a native New Yorker, can boast none of these traits or accomplishments. He is well-enough liked. He brings a relatively youthful zest to America's oldest orchestra by succeeding such senior-citizen conductors as Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel. He is musically responsible and doesn't take the fearless interpretive risks Dudamel sometimes does. If Gray's Papaya ever decides to serve an Alan Gilbert dog to match Pink's Dudamel dog in L.A., the Upper West Side hot dog stand is not likely to add jalapeno -- nor pile on junk food. Indeed, for Gilbert the freshness in the music is found in bringing out the natural ingredients with minimum fuss.

Each conductor is in the right place. Dudamel needs time to grow and mature away from the glare of New York's music establishment. Gilbert doesn't have the glitz for L.A. Why not, instead, just say all this media interest in American orchestras is great for classical music? That, so far, has been the brunt of reasoned commentary. But who's kidding whom? Thanks to PBS, television audiences were able to watch both orchestras' opening-night galas. Dudamel easily won the personality contest. In the Arizona Republic, Richard Nilsen wrote that "while Dudamel and his orchestra showed why classical music matters, Gilbert and his showed why audiences are dwindling."

What is really going on in New York, however, is not so much L.A. envy as L.A. influence. The Gilbert changes that critics in New York are cheering come straight out of the Salonen playbook. In L.A., Salonen built a uniquely flexible orchestra. He created an audience for new work and turned the new music series, the Green Umbrella, into a major audience draw. He programmed with a rare intelligence, placing classics and contemporary works in meaningful context.

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