I can’t be the only veteran NY Philharmonic subscriber who rubbed her eyes and raised her eyebrows upon reading (in Derek Lawrence‘s recent Vanity Fair article) that Gustavo Dudamel, now the director-designate of New York’s premier symphony orchestra, had semi-jokingly offered his current job as the LA Philharmonic’s director, to actress Cate Blanchett, on the strength of her Oscar-nominated performance as a classical conductor in “Tár.” As reported in the NY Times review of that film, Lydia Tár (a fictional character) “claims Leonard Bernstein as her mentor.”
As it happens, Bernstein (whom I saw in-person, several times, in my earliest concert-going days) is the conductor whose charisma and baton-brio are most frequently likened to Dudamel’s appeal on the podium. What’s more, Dudamel’s first concert with the NY Phil following the announcement of his being named as director-designate will feature the 9th symphony of Gustav Mahler—a composer whom Bernstein conspicuously championed. (As I wrote here, my current subscription includes that concert.)
Here’s the key Vanity Fair excerpt:
Dudamel told Blanchett, “Your way to conduct, your gesture, is very natural.” In return she joked, “Are you offering me a job?” He didn’t blink: “Absolutely, you can become music director.”…Later, more seriously, Dudamel asked if Blanchett had any interest in becoming a real conductor. “This is not an interview of that sort!” she said with a laugh.
Most New York critics seem to have caught Dudamel fever, with a needed antidote administered by the less smitten Wall Street Journal music critic: In his contrarian take—Cutting Through the Gush Over Dudamel’s Move to New York, David Mermelstein wrote: “Count me among the skeptics….With some notable exceptions…, Mr. Dudamel has largely failed to stir me.” That said, he certainly did stir the audience at the concert that I had attended on Jan. 18, 2020, which ended with a surefire crowd-rouser—the Dvořák 9th, “From the New World.”
Below is my video of the audience reaction at that concert.
During curtain calls, Dudamel typically focuses on thanking orchestra members, while only briefly nodding to his appreciative audience.
Like Mermelstein, I was more wowed by the audience’s reaction than by the orchestra’s performance. Similarly lukewarm about Dudamel was Zachary Wolfe of the NY Times, who wrote after the announcement of his selection that “if critics ruled the world—hope springs eternal—Esa-Pekka Salonen might be the New York Philharmonic’s music director right now.” If I ruled the music world (which I shouldn’t), Andris Nelsons, now music director of the Boston Symphony, might have ascended to the New York podium.
Critics did rule when Alan Gilbert was named to be the orchestra’s music director (followed by current director Jaap van Zweden). I found Gilbert to be competent but lackluster and I thought that his predecessor, Lorin Maazel (who, like Bernstein, was a composer as well as conductor) was unpardonably underestimated by the critics.
Here’s my earlier appraisal (as posted on this blog):
I’ve been disappointed by Gilbert’s lackluster renderings of highly familiar classical warhorses since he became the orchestra’s music director last season. In this perfunctory Mozart run-through, the orchestra, which under Gilbert’s baton has largely lost the rich sheen burnished by his predecessor, Lorin Maazel, seemed to be on autopilot. Maazel’s occasional performance stunt was to stop conducting and demonstrate how his well-rehearsed orchestra could play a passage with no onstage help from the maestro. This wry gesture was, in part, an expression of his confidence and pride in the musicians.
But enough about Dudamel and his podium predecessors. Let’s move on to another sensitive topic—the NY Phil’s graying, balding fan base. As Javier Hernández noted in his NY Times report on the NY Phil’s announcement: “Classical music audiences typically skew older.” (Guilty as charged.)
Here’s what I had tweeted (in a two-part thread lamenting the demise of the Philharmonic’s mask requirement), after having attended the October press preview for the NY Phil’s thoroughly revamped Geffen Hall:
As CultureGrrl readers know, I am “your grandmother.” So is Borda: She and I were both born the in same year. I (and other aging baby-boomers) would be more inclined to go to concerts and plays (the latter of which I have so far completely avoided) if certain seating sections were reserved for mask-wearers.
Some New York theaters already acknowledge this generation gap, by offering the option of mask-only performances on select days:
Classical music organizations ignore the health imperatives of a major segment of their core audience (seniors) at their own risk. Covid is not “over,” notwithstanding what the Senior-in-Chief, President Biden, recently said. I’m a case in point: just recovering from it, despite having been quintuple-vaccinated (in case you’ve been wondering why I’ve been largely missing lately from CultureGrrl and Twitter).
UPDATE: To be clear—I did not catch it at any cultural venue.
Here’s the sign at Geffen Hall Oct. 23, the last day when masks were required (which happened to be the first day of my NY Phil subscription)…
…and here are some audience members on that day (who were still arriving when I took this photo):
I fully understand the imperative of attracting new audiences and I’m no fan of strict adherence to a staid repertory of warhorses. Some of the most exhilarating programs I’ve experienced at Geffen (formerly “Avery Fisher“) Hall showcased riveting, unfamiliar contemporary pieces.
The good news for everyone, whatever their musical tastes, is that the revamped hall’s acoustics actually are much improved, as claimed—a prime objective of Philharmonic officials. I was so moved by the sonic beauty and lucidity of the first, very familiar piece that kicked off my subscription series—Debussy‘s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”—that I felt tears welling up (something that’s happened to me at operas, but not at orchestral performances). In the second concert in my series, I was embarrassed to find myself applauding along with gauche audience members after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (speaking of warhorses), because I had felt so moved by the fine playing of violin soloist Lisa Batiashvili and the lush sound of the orchestra under the baton of Kyiv-born Dalia Stasevska, who was previously unknown to me.
It’s a violation of classical-music protocol to interrupt a piece with applause between movements, but this time I couldn’t restrain myself.
In his comments at Dudamel’s meet-the-press moment in New York—a celebratory press conference held last Monday, Peter May, the NY Phil’s co-chairman, noted that “New Yorkers are all hungry for a feeling of joy. I don’t believe that without redoing this hall, Gustavo would have agreed to come to New York. But with him leading us, the possibilities are now limitless. He’ll attract more diverse younger audiences and patrons, and he will create programs that will appeal to all kinds of musical lovers.”
May’s co-chair on the Philharmonic’s board, Oscar Tang (who also spoke) is familiar to journalists (like me) who cover New York’s artworld:
At Monday’s NY Phil press conference officially announcing Dudamel’s hiring, Tang gave a special shout-out to First Republic Bank, which provided support “to help us bridge the financing until the pledges could come in.” I guess that helps to explain Borda’s off-key performance in a full-page ad that ran in the NY Times‘ magazine last Sunday, which quoted her and Henry Timms, president & CEO of Lincoln Center, shilling for their sponsor.
Although it’s customary and appropriate for nonprofits to thank major supporters, this, to me, crossed the line from gratitude to unseemly commercial promotion:
On the cusp of retirement as the NY Phil’s president and CEO, Borda will be succeeded on July 1 by Gary Ginstling, currently the NY Phil’s executive director, who had served as head of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra from 2017 to 2022.
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