Gustavo Dudamel: Tinseltown’s Gift to New York

Headline in The New York Times.

I am celebrating the announced departure of Gustavo Dudamel (though not until 2026) – without the jubilation of New Yorkers, but certainly not in mourning as Los Angeles may be. If I were more versed in baseball, I would compare Dudamel’s move to the New York Philharmonic as a popular but lackluster coach being hired away to another team.

To New Yorkers: Congratulations on your new acquisition. To Los Angeles: You’ll get along without him just fine.


And in the Los Angeles Times.

Just as there are two Disney Halls, there are two orchestras that play there: The Los Angeles Philharmonic under Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under everyone else.

Disney Hall (and it is sacrilegious to say this) is a lovely, live, responsive music house when it is empty. When it is full of warm bodies that sop up sound waves, it is dull and mushy. I have experimented with seats all over the hall, from the front orchestra to the back of the upper balcony, and the acoustics are fine when the hall is devoid of an audience. When filled with people (as it often is, thanks to Gustavo-mania) sound simply disappears. I attended (I can’t say I heard) a recital by Itzhak Perlman in which the sound of his solo violin was lost. I mean Perlman was inaudible – even in the front rows.

There are very few good seats in the house (I was once stuck in one of those odd little rooms without ceilings where the ushers sit between intermissions and the acoustics were stunning) and a lot of bad ones. I’m convinced, for example, that people who want to sit behind the orchestra so they can “see the conductor” have profound hearing loss and can’t tell how bad the acoustics are back there.

Just as it is sacrilegious (locally) to criticize Disney Hall, so it is to fault Dudamel, who brought Gustavo-mania to Los Angeles and the Philharmonic in 2009.

What Dudamel offers to the New York Philharmonic (a move that anyone should have anticipated once Deborah Borda returned East in 2017) is a marketing dream. Orchestras, and indeed arts groups in general, have the perpetual fear of “graying audiences” and are on the constant watch for something to boost ticket sales. Is it pops concerts? Is it live orchestral accompaniment of a favorite film? The “conductor with the fiery baton and bouncy curls?” Sell those tickets!

So it’s no surprise when Borda told The New York Times that Dudamel’s arrival in New York represents another “Golden Age” for the orchestra, comparing it to the tenure of Leonard Bernstein. Except that Dudamel probably won’t write any hit Broadway musicals.

Bernstein (it is safe to criticize the maestro since his death in 1990) was a marvelous popularizer and his Young People’s Concerts on TV performed admirably in attracting a broader and younger audience, and inspired many viewers to pursue a career in music. All very fine. As a music maker who lives on in voluminous recordings, Lenny is a notoriously overrated conductor and given a choice between a recording of him or the legendary Toscanini (another so-so conductor of the New York Philharmonic), I’d probably go get a cup of coffee instead.

The loss to Los Angeles, then, from Dudamel’s departure is primarily one for the marketing and publicity arms of the Philharmonic, though we can be reasonably sure the Los Angeles Times will continue its unstinting cheerleading, shouting itself hoarse proclaiming the orchestra to be the nation’s “best.” (Mr. Swed of The Times seems to be more interested in name-dropping about hobnobbing in his youth with now-forgotten avant-garde composers rather than covering his beat, his unquibbling reviews of the “L.A. Phil” being nothing but impassioned love letters to its marketing department).


Where, then, does Gustavo Dudamel rank among orchestra conductors? Is he another Sir Georg Solti? Oh, my, no. Not on the best day Gustavo ever had. Does his Mahler rival Bernard Haitink’s? (Not on the worst day Haitink ever had, though he never seems to have had a bad day). Is he another Carlo Maria Giulini? Another Andre Previn (an L.A. Philharmonic music director who merged classical music, pop music, movie scores and jazz)? Is he on a par with former New York Philharmonic Music Directors Kurt Masur or Lorin Maazel? No and no and no.

If anything, Dudamel is another flashy, superficial Zubin Mehta, who has carved out a long career as an “Oh well, I guess so” conductor of the Los Angeles (1962-1978) and New York (1978-1991) orchestras. This was firmly brought home to me by a performance by guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, longtime music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Under the baton of Tilson Thomas, another Los Angeles Philharmonic emerged: energetic and lively, sharp and precise, bright and uptempo. The sections no longer performed as little city-states of sound (one of the pitfalls of Dudamel on the podium) and instead blended into a unified orchestra. It truly has the ability to be a great orchestra – with the proper conductor.

Yes, Dudamel has been a marketing bonanza for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he has accomplished admirable things in attracting broader audiences and doing outreach to marginalized communities. This is all quite laudable.

In terms of pure music-making, however, he ain’t so much.

I congratulate the New York Philharmonic on acquiring a very marketable property in the form of Gustavo Dudamel. Apparently he bestows warm fuzzies on the orchestra (he seems to be good at that), while I don’t think that was one of Lorin Maazel’s gifts. Ticket sales should boom and fund-raising (always a difficult challenge for arts groups) should be easier.

What will follow in Los Angeles should be a long string of guest conductors as the search committee’s courting and winnowing process begins.

In the meantime, for New York’s music aficionados who see beyond the tinsel, it would be a gray day if you knew what you were getting with Gustavo Dudamel. For me, I’m happy to see him move along.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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2 Responses to Gustavo Dudamel: Tinseltown’s Gift to New York

  1. Mary Mallory says:

    I know a LA Phil cello player who believes he’s a great conductor and has brought passion to the orchestra.


    • lmharnisch says:

      Entirely possible. Gustavo appears to give out lots of “warm fuzzies” to orchestra members and not all conductors do that. Some are notoriously cold and aloof — or simply nasty and demeaning, though this is apparently less common today than it was at one time. I’m sure that Gustavo is popular with the musicians — but the players’ experience in rehearsals and concertizing is quite different from what the audience experiences in the hall.


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