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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.

          You wrote 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 interpretive growth.)
          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, pasion (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: Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, 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.
That's "backhanded?" That's negative?
          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 interpretations.
          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.
          I mean, 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.
          Here, 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 Carrie Dennis. 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.
          Lang Lang 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.)
          It's all 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 Concerto.)    
          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," notably home-grown David 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 such expectation.
          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 Deborah "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 doing, as 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 El Sistema, 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 reported 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 pasion.
 In 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 the Bernstein.
          But 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:
I’m 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.”
Dudamel isn't following Conlon's attitude at this point, and perhaps never will.
          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.


Rip Rense

P.S. As promised, below are some links to illustrate some of my points.
Mahler First Symphony, 2nd movement.
Kubelik (conductor serves the music): 
Dudamel (conductor interferes with the music):

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, 2nd movement
Lang Lang
Emil Gilels

Bach Cello Suite No. 1, prelude
Yo Yo Ma
Msitislav Rostropovich

Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Jesus Lopez-Cobos/ Alicia de Larrocha
Charles Munch
Bruno Walter
David Robertson

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