by RIP RENSE
Dear James Rainey. . .
(May 27, 2010)
A response to L.A. Times
columnist James Rainey's
May 26 attack on various newspaper critics who dared to find
fault with new L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
a good column about Dudamel. All your columns are good,
in my view. The writing is straightforward, clearly expressed,
thoughtful. Now that I’ve buttered you up, I have to tell you
that however understandable is your assertion that Dudamel has been slighted
by critics acting out of (mostly) eastern snobbery, that assertion is. . .wrong. I’m sorry
to use that hammer-blow of a word, but just for your
edification, it just ain’t the case.
Dudamel is a very nice,
very earnest, super talented. . .lightweight. Maybe in ten years
or twenty he will mature into one of the great interpretive minds on a
conducting podium, although such a transformation is unlikely.
I’m not looking to argue, or debate, or point a nyah nyah
finger here, I just want to let you know, for future
reference---or for tucking away in the Niggling Doubt portion of
the brain---your findings are incorrect. Here’s more, for when
you are desperate for reading material.
I’m not a conductor, but
I have been an ardent devotee of orchestral music since
age nine. I'm not a critic, or a musicologist, but I know good Beethoven from bad Beethoven, etc. The
essential truth about Dudamel is that he is, as touted, a
runaway, off-the-map brilliant musician. Somewhere in the realm
of prodigy and genius. But I would confine these descriptors to
his technical abilities. Technical abilities are without a doubt
eight innings of the game, or seven. But Dudamel is---as every
critic on the recent tour independently noted(!)---lacking in
the last inning or two.
I picked up on this long ago, watching
him at Disney Hall and on PBS. It was easy to see, for those
with more than a passing acquaintance with symphonic repertoire
(fact, not snobbery), and his deficiencies were hinted at in
articles some time ago. (Notably where some New York Phil
players characterized him as guilty of “over-conducting” and in need of
Your column perhaps did not give sufficient due to the fact that
all but one of the critics who expressed reservations about Dudamel’s
interpretive skills---and more alarming, his ability to keep the
ensemble organized---also praised the unholy hell out of the guy
in language that did not skimp in its admiration. Chiefly for Dudamel’s undisputed sincerity,
(a staple word of the L.A. Phil's garish ad campaign) and ability to rouse an audience. John von Rhein in
the Chicago Tribune wrote: "There's no question he is
inordinately talented, a brilliant and inspiring podium dervish
who can get an orchestra to do anything he wishes while lifting
an audience out of its seats." Yet you, James, suggest that
the critics' praise was "backhanded" and that the negative
remarks were "seemingly powered by something more."
I read all the reviews:
San Francisco Chronicle. They read like considered,
thoughtful, informed analyses, that's all. Because they are.
What do you think, there is a conspiracy among all these critics
to knock Dudamel? Well, perhaps you do. But the last time I
heard two critics agree on anything was, uh. . .hmm.
Here's Anne Midgette in
the Washington Post:
On Monday, one could
find plenty to carp at if one was so inclined: balance issues,
shaky entrances, lackluster moments from the brass. Frankly,
though, that didn't matter, because Dudamel and the orchestra
also offered one of the most involving and compelling
performances of Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" symphony I've ever
heard. This was music played by someone who loves music, someone
who had an idea where he was going with the piece. And the
orchestra opened its collective heart and went right along with
him. Perfect? No. Gorgeous? Yes.
Yes, James, you're right
that the Inquirer's Peter Dobrin was unforgiving in his review, but frankly, he's allowed.
Does Dudamel's colossal hype demand that critics compromise
integrity? Dobrin found fault with the conductor, and
performance, as did half a dozen other major critics. And he did
rather bravely raise a salient point:
The most cynical
listener figures that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has
recalculated aspects of the job once considered ancillary
(community relations, education, fund-raising) as primary now,
and a winsome persona is more important than revelatory
Well, I can't readily think of
any figure more aggressively marketed on the basis of
personality, youthfulness, appearance (Google "Dudamel" plus "hair"), and even
ethnicity (the ad campaign traded on Spanish slogans, and one
article crudely lauded a "great brown hope") than Dudamel.
The Phil's Deborah Borda was hardly oblivious to these factors
when she hired him.
Please note, James, that
the critics' praise generally came for Dudamel's handling of 20th century works
(Bernstein's 2nd Symphony, "Age of Anxiety," and John Adams'
"City Noir") as opposed to the Tchaikovsky 6th symphony, the "Pathetique." This is
an excellent demonstration of the point that the critics and I
are making here: technical skill will hold a conductor in better
stead with more abstract, structurally complex modern music than
it will with romantic era warhorses. More bluntly, it’s harder
to find mistakes in Bernstein and John Adams than Tchaikovsky,
and harder to evaluate interpretation. But overall, this is not
so much a matter of technical “error," despite the fact that all
the critics correctly noted Dudamel's uneven ability to keep the
orchestra on track. This is a matter of deficiency of
ideas, deficiency of interpretive depth, deficiency of overall
concept, vision. Sometime, if you get
the chance, James, listen to Dudamel’s Pathetique, and then
Bernstein’s. Or Solti’s. Even if you don’t have a keen ear for
noting the differences in approach, you will hear them. And they
will be substantial.
In short, Dudamel is, at this point, a one-trick pony.
His stated musical ethos is “intensity.” (Try Googling "Dudamel"
plus "intensity.") He has even
reportedly observed (read: complained)
that the L.A. Phil does not play with sufficient “intensity.”
Huh? This is wildly absurd, as anyone who attended the better concerts under Esa-Pekka Salonen
(or Giulini, or Mehta, for that matter) will attest. Dudamel’s musical upbringing and orientation
revolve around the idea of extroverted expressiveness at all times in every
piece of music. This is essentially his philosophy. That
there is never a moment in any piece that does not call for
maximum expression. What’s wrong with that, you wonder? Just
this: expression does not mean over-the-top gesticulation, or
volume, or stridence, or "intensity."
If you poke around
Youtube, James, you can find footage of
many conductors and orchestras who appear to be moving
minimally, yet the performances are plenty “intense.” (I furnish
some examples at the end of this letter.) Look at Dudamel’s conducting style. No matter what he is conducting, he
winds up looking as though he is in the throes of quadruple
orgasm. Even if he is sincere, which I believe he is, this is
indicative of limitation in attitude. Translation:
less sophisticated, even simplistic interpretive tools.
really, how funny that he would tell this orchestra, which was
hailed on international tour with Salonen as one of the very best
in the world, that it lacks “intensity.” This would be analogous
to a new coach telling Derek Fisher of the Lakers that he lacks
“intensity” because his jump shots all look alike. It’s just
silly. But because Dudamel comes from a musical training
that esteems and emphasizes physical expressivity---pasion---he
seems to have come
to consider this “interpretation.”
There is more to life,
and music, than pasion.
James, is an example of what Dudamel probably considers to be “intensity.”
Next time you are at a concert, watch L.A. Phil principal violist
She is, of course, a superb musician, but she moves around like a heavy metal guitarist. A
violist. Every note she plays appears to be an utterance of
monumental emoting, if not constipation. I’ve never
seen anything like it. She almost falls out of her chair, and
probably makes her immediate neighbors wary of eye pokes
and elbow jabs. Most amazing,
you can sometimes actually hear her above her own section, such is her
volume. I have never in my life heard a viola---the
invisible instrument of the orchestra---stand out during
ensemble playing. Quite a feat.
These histrionics are a
relatively recent and pervasive trend in performance. Perhaps
it's the influence of rock stars, "American Idol," or music
videos, but it has become vogue among classically trained
musicians to look “expressive,” and music teachers around
the world have picked this up. It’s not cheap showmanship, it’s
the conflation of body language and dynamics with the idea of interpretive
worth. Uh-uh. You do not have to writhe and make strange chewing
motions with your mouth in order to effectively interpret music.
(This means you, Itzhak Perlman.) Body language and physical
expressivity arise naturally from playing. If you teach them,
they become nothing but affectation.
is a good example of the Dudamel “intensity” school, James.
He is a technical marvel, but his interpretations are as
banal as banal gets (and critics often rake the guy, and rightly.)
He is all glitz, flash, and vulgarity. Fortissimo to him means “crush the piano,” and
pianissimo means “play so softly no one can hear you.” I recall
his explanation of his interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Piano
Concerto #1, second movement: “I think of a little bear playing in
the snow.” This is a child prodigy who is still a child. He is
essentially a trained monkey money-making machine. The crowds
love him, of course, but this does not make him a fine musician.
Put simply, when Lang
Lang plays, it's the Lang Lang Show. He's a distraction, not a
complement. And when Dudamel conducts, it's the Gustavo Show.
(The Phil unashamedly sells it this way to the public.)
related, of course, to increasingly hypertrophic displays among
performers in all aspects of popular culture, part of a
demographically-driven and highly remunerative dumbing down that
trivializes, and even sneers at, such "intellectual" qualities
as nuance, restraint, delicacy. It's a great tragedy, really, as it erodes
civility, if not civilization, exalting crudity over refinement.
The obvious over the subtle. And Dudamel can take obvious
to the point of making one wince. You want to tell him, "Hey,
take it easy, have a little Xanax, the music doesn't really call for you
to go berserk at all times. You might hurt yourself." (In fact,
he recently did---pulling
a muscle in his neck while conducting the Dvorak Cello
James, part of what
colors your reaction to the San Francisco, New York, Chicago,
D.C., and Philadelphia critics is the obscene degree
of hype to surround Dudamel. He has been ridiculously touted in
press and advertising as a "savior" of music
ever since Borda picked him (over far less flashy, “sexy,”
candidates of less "intensity,"
Robertson.) Even you, James, have used
that catch-phrase: that Dudamel is here "to
revive classical music itself." Mm-mm. No one can live up to this sort
of nonsense, and it is sad to see this fellow subjected to
And this notion of
classical music needing saving always amuses me. Classical
music has never been more popular. Period. There are more
orchestras, better orchestras, more players, better players,
than at any time in history. Musicians routinely commute
thousands of miles weekly in order to hold down jobs in symphony
orchestras, even minor symphony orchestras. There is a glut of
virtuosic performers of all kinds, including conductors. If audiences are
down lately, blame the economy, not lack of interest. And in the
case of the L.A. Phil, you can also blame
"Smiley" Borda, the prez and CEO. This woman crowed about how
Disney Hall is "L.A.'s living room," yet tickets for concerts
cost almost double what the did when the L.A. Phil resided in
the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and get this, James:
There are no student tickets.
That's right, after the orchestra moved to Disney Hall,
pre-concert rush discount student tickets bit the dust. Despite
the fact that there are oodles of empty seats at every single
L.A. Phil concert. Oodles.
Now that's "reviving
classical music itself," isn't it! Nicely done, Debbie!
What Dudamel is actually
every human on earth probably knows by now, as well as
chimpanzees, dogs, aardvarks, and some lemurs, is attempting to
inspire music programs for young people in the States modeled after
the astonishingly effective music education system in Dudamel's
native Venezuela. If he succeeds at
this even to a slight
degree, that will make him a hero, in my book.
But it does not put him above
legitimate, thoughtful, expert criticism by legitimate,
thoughtful, expert critics.
Yet Borda, as you
in your column, James, charged that the critics were motivated
by sour grapes (allegedly because their cities did not snag Dudamel) and schadenfreude.
Har! How junior high school, how bush league, how. . .Nixon.
There is not the slightest implication of malice in any of the
reviews listed in your column. Most of the critics contorted themselves
silly to soft-pedal their complaints, and what's more, their
specific criticisms are often technically provable. Midgette
cited shaky entrances, "slurs," "balance issues," as well as
more subjective charges, such as Dudamel's tendency to "revel in
the glories of individual moments" at the expense of overall
impact (a comment also made independently by other critics.)
Borda is simply
disingenuous, James, but who can blame her? She is a
musician, and she knows exactly what Dudamel’s deficiencies are
at this point in his career. She is understandably worried
about the mixed (hardly negative) reviews that the tour has
fetched, given the bad economy, and the fact that her career is riding on Dudamel's
sum, James, there is a difference between imposing your ideas on an existing score,
you see, and
illuminating that score from the “inside out.” In Dudamel’s case, his ideas
at this point are mostly skin (or sound)-deep. Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” you can argue,
is not music of any depth. It is essentially a thrill-ride (largely a
depiction of an opium fantasy.) Dudamel had a frothing good time with it,
and I enjoyed it immensely. It was fun.
Such was not the case,
though, for his Mahler
First Symphony, which
is music of undeniable poetry, brooding, angst, transcendence. Here Dudamel
imposed very subjective notions of how he thought the music should be,
never mind Mahler. For example, the second movement is a “Landler” (18th
century folk dance). Dudamel injected strange rubato (artificial slowing
down, in this case) at the beginning to sort of set up “suspense” for the
theme to follow. Sounds harmless? Sure. And the audience ate it up. But the
net effect is that Dudamel bent Mahler to his will, rather than trying to
understand Mahler and reveal his intentions. That’s a huge difference.
It’s not that it was audacious, which it was, that was objectionable---it’s
that it was distracting, and made the music sound cheesey, cartoony, movie-soundtracky,
labored. There were many such mannered moments in the symphony, and it
interfered with progression and overarching statement. Some of those "snobby"
sour grapes critics
were probably right to assail this same failing in the Pathetique and
don't take it from me, James. I'm just an amateur hobbyist
blowhard. Here is a statement from L.A. Opera Conductor James Conlon
that far better sums up this point than I ever could:
against people who present a Mozart symphony and say, 'Okay, now
I’m going to dissect this work and show you what it really is.'
To me it’s a false point of departure. Our job as performers is
to surrender our own egos and to completely open ourselves to
the work itself and to transmit that work as if we’re not there.
This is on the one hand a very easy and simple thing to do. On
the other hand, we’re all crippled by our own egos. To me, I’m
not interested in knowing what my interpretation is.
"When I was studying at The Juilliard School, the big movement
was objectivism vs. subjectivism and the popular methodology was, 'You have
to find your own feelings, your own voice, and you have to find yourself.
What’s your take on this piece of music?' Well, I had an
allergy to that type of
conversation. I thought, 'I know what my feelings are and I couldn’t care
less what my own feelings are. I want to know what the object is.' Is that
objectivism? Well, yes, that’s objectivism. I want to know who Haydn is. I
want to know who Beethoven is. I want to know how their music works. How
does it fit? Why is it this? And why is it that?
"And to me, the beauty of
that method is that you can devote yourself to the other, and a byproduct of
that is that you find yourself. However if you go from the other point of
view -- the 'find yourself' subjectivism -- you don’t find the other. It’s
very simple -- so simple that we don’t do it enough. Therefore, you can
imagine I have a strong sense of resistance to anything that wants to
superimpose itself on the work of art.”
following Conlon's attitude at this point, and perhaps never
So that's my long
explanation for you, James. Sorry I can't be more succinct. It
was a nice gesture on your part to defend the home team, but in
this case it was not warranted. And with Mark Swed, one music critic
homer on a newspaper is enough.
P.S. As promised, below are some links to illustrate some of my
Mahler First Symphony, 2nd movement.
Kubelik (conductor serves the music):
Dudamel (conductor interferes with the music):
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, 2nd movement
Bach Cello Suite No. 1, prelude
Yo Yo Ma
Jesus Lopez-Cobos/ Alicia de Larrocha
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