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December 28, 2007

The Real Thing: Gustavo Dudamel

What an amazing sight! A Tuesday night regular subscription concert of the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. The fourth repeat of a program that, while very nicely put together, is not what you would call a box-office blockbuster: Chavez's Sinfonia India; Dvořák's Violin Concerto; Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony.

Outside on the Lincoln Center plaza were clots of people shouting out "Does anyone have a ticket to sell?" It reminded me of the signs people hold up every day at the Bayreuth Festival (consistently sold out years in advance), but such a sight is rare indeed in our concert halls. The reason? Simple - a 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor who is now an extraordinarily "hot" property in classical music: Gustavo Dudamel...

What is so wonderful about Dudamel is that the hype is justified! Often we see a superstar develop overnight, and then fizzle. I will go on the record now as saying that will not happen here. The sheer talent level is too deep. It is, in fact, astonishing. The New York Philharmonic musicians rarely pay a conductor the tribute of refusing to share a bow with him, but applauding him instead at the end of the concert. To see them do that for a 26-year-old is truly astonishing. After the concert, I spoke with a number of musicians who affirmed that Dudamel is the real thing, not just a superficially exciting conductor but a true musician who knows the scores, knows what he wants, and gets an orchestra to play as if they are discovering the music for the first time. Exactly the same thing I heard from quite a few Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians last season after he made his debut there.

One might worry that so much responsibility and visibility on the shoulders of a 26-year-old could crush him. I cannot think of any example, in my lifetime, of a conductor in his mid-twenties who has already stood on the podiums of the Boston, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles orchestras (and he'll add San Francisco this season), and abroad the Philharmonia, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and the Israel Philharmonic. And he's already the music director in Gothenburg, and adds to it the same position in Los Angeles in 2009. One might ask if it is too much too soon.

But those worries vanish after actually seeing seeing him at work. The videos of his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, and the in-the-hall experience of seeing him with the New York Philharmonic, make absolutely clear that this is the real thing. His podium presence, his ability to inspire musicians to play as if their lives depended on it, his ability to give performances that at the moment they are happening make you think this is the only way the music can go: All these things mark an astounding and unique talent. All one can do is look and listen in awe, and be thankful that we may have this talent in our world for the next half century or so.

Posted by hfogel at December 28, 2007 11:17 AM

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My friends in these orchestras affirm the same wonder of this young man. 20 years his senior, it is indeed encouraging from the soloist point of view that such fresh, young gifted talents as Dudamel are in the next generation of conductors. Next week, I work with the Milwaukee Symphony with one of my favorite concerti, the 'Prokofiev 3rd', which I know since 1980. It will be interesting to work with the young UK conductor, Edward Gardner, for the first time. The UK is also producing brilliant young conductors, and as I am very close to this concerto for nearly 30 years, Gardner will be the youngest conductor I have worked with. I will be eager to experience what he brings to the score.

Posted by: Jeffrey Biegel at December 29, 2007 7:48 AM

Henry.. I have been reading about Gustavo Dudamel and his performances, so I snapped up his recording of the Mahler 5th with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. I must tell you that I had to keep reminding myself of how young everyone involved with the recording is; the phrasing and sense of excitement is extraordinary. I am happy to hear that you believe Dudamel is the genuine article. Can't wait to attend one of his live performances here in New York. With any luck, we will be listening to him conduct for many years to come.

I have listened to that Mahler Fifth, and agree completely with Mr. Orloff's comments. If you want to see Dudamel conduct, there is a DG DVD of the 80th birthday concert for the Pope done in the Vatican with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra and Dudamel conducting along with Hilary Hahn. His talent is vividly evident there.

Posted by: Alan Orloff at January 2, 2008 4:41 PM

I have a suspicion that, were it not for PR hype, Dudamel would not be any hotter than Scott O'Neill or Alastair Willis (both fine young and relatively unknown conductors). I think that critics are some of the biggest suckers in the world. Yawn..., another Esa Pekka Salonen yawn....

Posted by: aloysius at January 6, 2008 9:04 AM

I think the comment posted by aloysius was rather unnecessary and rude. I would suggest that he or she withhold any negative comments until actually listening to Dudamel's conducting. As far as the nasty comment about critics is concerned, I think it says quite a bit about the type of person who is making it. Although I don't often agree with some esteemed critics, we must remember that they are human beings like all of us, and they are entitled to share their joy or dismay with us, as long as they provide us with a reason for their feelings. We can choose to agree or disagree, but when you have a critic of the caliber of Henry Fogel who truly knows his stuff and is loath to be openly mean, we have a chance to open our minds and learn something we not have known previously. I would suspect that most people who read this blog are mature enough to appreciate his comments, and not feel the need to add nasty or time wasting accusations.

Posted by: Alan Orloff at January 8, 2008 9:56 AM