Gustavo Dudamel conducting the L.A. Philharmonic. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
When people turn their backs to you, they're sending a clear message. The sight of a conductor's back is an unmistakable sign that his presence onstage isn't primarily for the audience. He is there to guide the orchestra through the intricacies of a piece of music. Yes, he's aware he's onstage, but any theatrics are collateral.
This isn't to suggest that conductors are a self-effacing breed. Leonard Bernstein, with his dashing flamboyance readily soaring into the sublime, was always a prominent part of the symphonic show. In the case of Gustavo Dudamel, the galvanizing music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who has excited classical music aficionados the way Tiger Woods once roused golf fans, the sight of his dark curly locks sailing in the orchestral breeze of Walt Disney Concert Hall is indisputably part of the main attraction.
Watching Dudamel trace parabolas in the air with his baton, sometimes with body English, sometimes with concentrated stillness, is a singular theatrical experience. Whenever a visiting theater-lover asks for recommendations from me, I invariably suggest a trip to Disney Hall or the Hollywood Bowl if the Venezuelan maestro is in session.
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Diffident when addressing the audience in his charmingly accented English (he seemed rather bashful in the few remarks he made during the opening night gala concert in September at Disney Hall), he is an uninhibited tour de force once the music erupts.
Dynamic close-ups of Dudamel's fervent face projected onto giant screens at the Bowl lend his alfresco concerts a Spielbergian frisson. Indoors, he's somewhat more restrained but no less impassioned.
Dramatic gestural flourishes and intense emotive expressiveness are pretty much guaranteed. Depending on the piece he's conducting, Dudamel's performance can also feature quite a bit of spontaneous choreography. His South American style absorbs rhythm corporeally, but he never falls into showboating. He puts himself — heart, mind and body — at the service of the music.
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USC music and journalism professor and former Washington Post music critic Tim Page believes this to be the main ingredient of Dudamel's success. The theatrics, however captivating, are secondary
"Conducting is a vast mystery," Page says. "You have someone like Leonard Bernstein, who conducted as if he were in a state of incredible ecstasy, and then you have someone like Pierre Boulez, who conducted as if he were a bank teller making change. Both have gotten spectacular results from orchestras. It's hard to define what will make a great conductor. There are some conductors who look thrilling but nothing really happens with the musicians. It's not enough to be handsome, dynamic, trim or balletic."
Still, Page acknowledges that Dudamel's stage presence is riveting: "There's all that hair, there's the youth, the vigor. It is terrific theater. However, it also communicates to the musicians."
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The composer and critic Virgil Thomson once said of Bernstein that he's a little excessive but if you close your eyes you can still listen to him. Page says he feels the same way about Dudamel: "He's exciting to watch, but he also manages to convey that excitement to the orchestra. I have heard him conduct a sloppy performance from time to time, but I've never heard him conduct a dull one."
Part of the enjoyment of listening to Dudamel is watching how he gets his exquisite results. He animates the enigma of conducting, bringing it to life with body language that elucidates the unique attributes of a given piece of music almost as much for the audience as for the orchestra.
Dudamel's demeanor when conducting Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 was radically different than it was during his sinewy handling of the composer's "Eroica." The conductor, ever gracious, wasn't simply conceding the stage to pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. As Times music critic Mark Swed pointed out in his review, Dudamel's "fortes with the orchestra were real fortes," and the last movement, gutsily executed, "almost seemed to throw the pianist slightly off and kept a listener on the edge of his seat."
There's nothing retiring about Dudamel — his musical personality isn't recessive in the least. But he adjusts himself, chameleon-like, to the composition, shuttling the focus to where it ought to be.
Naturally, the spotlight for the Beethoven piano concert was trained on Andsnes' lithe pianism. When ushers let in some clattering latecomers between movements, Dudamel held back as though in apology to his guest, who closed his piano in mock annoyance. This half of the concert belonged to Andsnes, even if Dudamel could be counted on to provide more than pedestrian orchestral accompaniment.