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On the Media: Are Gustavo Dudamel critics showing their East Coast bias?

Harsh critiques plus back-handed praise out of New York, Chicago and elsewhere suggest the L.A. Phil's young music director may be upsetting the traditional pecking order.

May 26, 2010|James Rainey

They wrote that the newcomer was full of promise, but young and untested. He might be a figure of some substance, they reported, if he didn't get carried away with his own charisma.

Barack Obama's run through the presidential campaign gantlet came very much to mind as another heralded newcomer, Gustavo Dudamel, faced the media last week on his first national tour as musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

With the returns now in from the eight-city adventure, the nation's critics didn't exactly send the Venezuelan-born conductor home a loser. But the naysayers raised plenty of doubts about Dudamel — questioning his depth, his discipline and his willingness to rein in the emotions that have previously been described as one of his main gifts.

No doubt the messianic expectations of Dudamel — to not only coax great playing out of the L.A. Phil but to engage the young and revive classical music itself — were due for review. But the critiques coming out of Chicago, New York and other points (mostly east) seemed powered by something more.

Could it be provincialism, just another L.A. beat-down, stoked by a bit of jealousy? We will never know the critics' hearts.

But we do know that John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune (like The Times, owned by Tribune Co.) heard "half-formed interpretative ideas" that "betray a lack of musical depth." The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini saw that Dudamel "pushed expressivity to extremes" while not tending to his players' technical skills.

Never has a performance been judged "basically wonderful" — Tommasini's assessment of the Angeleno's rendition of Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 — in such a back-handed way. The Times' critic secreted that conclusion near the end of his review, a small lifeboat in a sea of dismissals.

The prize for passive aggression, though, had to go to Philadelphia Inquirer critic Peter Dobrin. Dobrin raised (and then, generously, rejected) the idea that the philharmonic brought Dudamel to Los Angeles merely as a "winsome" publicity and fund-raising machine.

Dobrin, instead, convicted L.A. only of a kind of delusion. "I'd rather think that the Los Angeles board, administration, and players really believe they have a great musical thinker on their hands," he wrote. "But that's not who Dudamel is — not now, at 29, not Wednesday night in Verizon Hall."

This is not meant to suggest that Dudamel and players met derision everywhere they went. Even the harsher critics described the conductor's immense potential and more than a few, like Arizona Republic critic Richard Nilsen, said that much of the promise had already been realized. "You would have to be stone not to be shaken by it," Nilsen said of the L.A. Phil's performance of Mahler's First Symphony. "Not just moved, but shaken."

Nilsen suggested the blowback gained force because it threatened the traditional pecking order.

"There is still the sense that L.A. is the place of the philistines," Nilsen told me, "and that it can't be as good an orchestra as it is because the really good orchestras have to be in New York or Chicago or Cleveland. I'm sure there is at least a bit of East Coast snobbery involved."

I don't pretend to be anything more than a dilettante in this whole debate, but it didn't take much nosing around to understand that American classical music in the 21st century lacks nothing for rivalry and intrigue.

It's been just months since the Los Angeles and Chicago orchestras battled for the loyalties of acclaimed flutist Mathieu Dufour. When Dufour forsook Los Angeles to return to the Chicago orchestra, he was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times saying the Los Angeles Philharmonic had no real tradition or history of true ensemble playing. (Dufour later claimed he was misquoted.)

When Chicago and New York brought on new musical directors, many aficionados believed they really coveted Dudamel. But the young dynamo chose Los Angeles, taking cart-loads of enthusiasm and attention along with him.

L.A. Philharmonic President Deborah Borda joked to L.A. Times classical music critic Mark Swed at the end of the recent tour in New York that the backlash suggested that the "Eat Your Heart Out" tour had morphed into the "Schadenfreude" tour.

One of the orchestra's veteran musicians agreed that the barbs betrayed at least a hint of the critics' hometown bias.

"In a way, we are going into the territory of other orchestras, almost like going into enemy territory," said the musician, who declined to be named because he hadn't gotten approval from management to speak about the recent reviews. "Then we come in with this young rock star conductor; everyone would love to hate us in that kind of situation."

History suggests that Dudamel is not the first, and will not be the last, young conductor to suffer such hazing.

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