The most electric young conductor on the orchestral scene today is less a trailblazer than a throwback to podium heroes of long ago. Once again, audiences throng, not just to hear Beethoven or Mahler, but to hear his Beethoven or Mahler. Once again they want to be present for the thrills, they want to touch the aura, witness the galvanizing bolt that flies when he swings the baton. Gustavo Dudamel provokes the kind of idolizing that upper echelon conductors from Toscanini to Karajan came to expect, but that has eluded their successors. He has made his profession seem superhuman again.
In 2004, the then-23-year-old Dudamel entered a conducting competition in which Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was on the jury. Salonen did more than make sure that the young Venezuelan won; he called LA, reporting to the Philharmonic brass that he had discovered someone special. “He’s a conducting animal,” he said. Five years later, Salonen left the orchestra and Dudamel took his place, a changeover that was celebrated as a kind of royal succession.
You can hear the reason for the excitement in his recordings – though not especially in the recordings he has made with the L.A. Philharmonic. By the time he took over that group, he had already spent a decade in charge of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and under his leadership that group of young musicians continues to play with an explosive urgency that shames many more august ensembles. Listen to its version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring interlocking rhythms spark and jump in a fusion of primal pounding and industrial precision. The effect – fearsome, rousing, unnerving – is exactly what Stravinsky wanted but could hardly ever get, because once the score entered the canon of certified masterpieces, it lost its jagged edge. These young musicians have recovered the score’s extremes, the spasms of violence alternating with quiet, reverent frenzy.
Dudamel and his muchachos, as he refers to them, accept no settled wisdom, and in the recordings, they are constantly renegotiating the impact of even the most scriptural works. In the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony the string figures boil dangerously beneath the main theme, and (at 2:07) it’s the volcanic upwelling of those figures, rather than the principal trumpet call, that impels the music to its climax. In each dense fortissimo, you can make out the orchestras every hue, as if the conductor had sheared away the side of a sonic cliff, revealing all the layers and veins below.
Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra are both products of Venezuela’s now-famous nationwide music education program, nicknamed El sistema, which draws slum kids, among others, into orchestras by the thousands. The experience has been infectious. Other countries and cities – including L.A. – are trying to emulate El sistema‘s success, and a few Latin American composers are enjoying a sudden (though unfortunately mostly posthumous) surge in popularity. The orchestra’s calling card is a wildly joyous program called Fiesta, which combines the overpowering roar of Silvestre Revueltas’s Sensemayá with the acrobatic dances of Ginastera’s Estancia – plus the sexiest, most combustible “Mambo” from West Side Story you will ever hear. In concert, the tux jackets come off to reveal warm-up gear in the colors of the Venezuelan flag. Violinists boogie as they play, bassists twirl their basses, and horn players blare skywards. But even without the choreography, you can sense the players’ sheer physical glee.
Not all works – or all orchestras – respond equally well to Dudamel’s relentless application of excitement. So far, the L.A. Phil’s few live recordings haven’t captured the incandescent quality of his best performances. Their reading of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is eminently respectable but it lacks charm or mystery, and sometimes seems to proceed from measure to measure out of a ponderous sense of duty. Dudamel displays greater kinship with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, but this is turf that the Angelenos had already covered sumptuously with his predecessor. Dudamel possesses enormous, potentially limitless talent, but it may take a while before Salonen’s orchestra becomes his, and before they can enjoy together all the marvelous music that takes place between bouts of spectacle and thunder.