Classical Music: Dudamel Comes to Town

Leonard Bernstein was the most charismatic conductor of the last century, and Gustavo Dudamel is the most charismatic one of this century.

Charismatic conductor Gustavo Dudamel in action

Charismatic conductor Gustavo Dudamel in action

By Caldwell Titcomb

I provided a lengthy update on the phenomenal conductor Gustavo Dudamel here in December. But now there is important fresh news about him. He actually came to town this weekend as the 2010 recipient of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) McDermott Award in the Arts and led an open rehearsal of the MIT Symphony Orchestra.

I’ll get to the rehearsal in a minute. The McDermott Award, established in 1974 and carrying a prize of $75,000, is one of the most coveted honors in the arts and is named for Eugene McDermott, a longtime benefactor of MIT. Among the past recipients are sculptor Henry Moore (1981), architect I. M. Pei (1984), composer Tan Dun (1994), theater director Kenny Leon (1996), and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (2006).

Before a large audience in Kresge Auditorium on April 16, MIT president Susan Hockfield presented the award to the 29-year-old conductor, now in his eleventh year as music director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela while continuing as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony of Sweden and nearing the end of his first season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Projected on a large screen, there was a brief mini-documentary showing Dudamel in various stages of his career from a violinist in the Youth Orchestra to the Los Angeles podium last October.

Then the young members of the MIT Symphony trooped on stage for the rehearsal, which was a constantly thrilling experience. Dudamel was dressed in a black shirt, black pants, black socks, and black loafers. There was a stool on the podium, but he rarely used it.

The first order of business was the opening movement of Mozart’s late “Prague” Symphony (K. 504). Although it may be easy just to play the notes, Dudamel said that playing Mozart is a real “challenge.” The music was on the stand in front of him, but he never opened it; as they say, he had the score in his head, not his head in the score.

He led the students about half way through the movement, and, for an hour, he then proceeded to refine what they were doing by going back to the slow introduction. Most of his attention fell on the string players. Even the descending five-note scales took much of his time. Again and again he had them repeat these fragments while he explained or sang how to make them intensely moving instead of slack. Using his baton as a stand-in for a bow, he showed the players how to mold the phrases.

From time to time, he conveyed his desires with sweeping motions of his left hand. Though Dudamel’s back was to the audience, a judiciously placed TV monitor projected the players or conductor on the upstage screen so that we could see his highly expressive face. His energy and total involvement in the music were remarkable.

The second composition of the evening was Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol,” Op. 34, one of the most dazzling and brilliant pieces in the entire orchestral repertoire. It calls for a much larger group than the Mozart, with a percussion section that includes timpani, castanets, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, and military drum, along with a harp. It is a real showpiece, containing numerous solo licks for different instruments.

This time Dudamel led the work straight through from start to finish. The performance was pretty impressive (only talented players are accepted, by audition). Then Dudamel spent a quarter of an hour on several demanding spots. It was fascinating to observe his body language.

This evening had to be a treat for the instrumentalists—it certainly was for the audience. As I said before, Leonard Bernstein was the most charismatic conductor of the last century, and Gustavo Dudamel is the most charismatic one of this century. There is no conductor in the world today that I would rather watch either in rehearsal or in formal performance.


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