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(June 4, 2010)

It’s just beyond beyond-belief.
          Now it’s racism.
          This is why those seasoned critics at major U.S. newspapers including the New York Times and Washington Post were critical of Gustavo Dudamel.
          It’s not his rubato that’s the problem, it’s his latino. He’s not white!
          Every day, the cancerous insanity over race in this country leaves me nearly paralyzed with incredulity. L.A. Times columnist James Rainey has completed the paralysis. I am frozen solid by this statement, from his May 19 column, “Are East Coast Critics Showing Their Anti-Gustavo Bias?”:
          “Is it possible — though no one says it, or perhaps even thinks it consciously — that the same critiques of Dudamel have become super-charged by his ‘otherness’ — the conductor who is too hot and too Latin for some traditional tastes?”
          Oh, the hypocrisy! The man charges ethnic/racial profiling, then engages in cheap ethnic/racial profiling in the same statement: "too hot and too Latin." Watch out for those lazy blacks, cheap Jews, racist WASPs, and. . .hot Latins! To quote Bugs Bunny, something I find myself doing with greater and greater frequency, "What a maroon."
          Well, that elephant in the room aside, let's take Rainey's charges seriously.
          It's racism, he says. This is why critics knocked Dudamel! Well, actually, he doesn’t use the term. He weaves together what he imagines to be the slightest possible hint that Dudamel’s ethnicity might be coloring (so to speak) critics’ comments. He doesn’t pussyfoot, he pussyfeets. Why, in the readers’ comments section following the column, Rainey denies implying there is any racism involved in the matter at all.
          "I did not call anyone racist,” he declared in response to a comment from the peanut gallery.
          Well, yes, James, and Bill Clinton did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.
          But wait, there’s Monica more:
          “I suggested that Dudamel's differences from previous-issue conductors may have subconsciously influenced some, not all, reviewers,” Rainey ahems on. “Could ethnicity be a part of it? Perhaps. But I tend to think that the other biases I described are likely the more compelling factors."
          What’s that wind on my face? Why, it’s the breeze generated by the furious backpedaling of a chin-stroking Times columnist who has made a dangerously wrong turn. Ahem, I tend to think, ahem, that the other biases---pardon me while I stroke my august chin for a moment---I described are, ahem, likely, ahem, the uh, more compelling factors. . .
          Get this guy a pipe, quick. I mean, “previous-issue conductors?” Huh? Who issued them? And that has a rather, oh, earthy ring to it, doesn’t it? Brings to mind busy batons. . .
          But let’s, in something approximating fairness, examine this backpedaling, pedal by pedal:
           “I suggested that Dudamel's differences from previous-issue conductors may have subconsciously influenced some, not all, reviewers.”
          Ahem, chin stroke, yesssss, some, but not all. Well, which ones, James? How many critics did you have in mind? More than two? Less than seven? Can you name names? You know, if I were a critic, and a major columnist in a daily newspaper had oh-so-delicately planted the idea that my opinion might be a matter of racial bigotry, I would be rather. . .
          He continues: “Could ethnicity be a part of it? Perhaps.” Whoah! Now, that’s a bit less electrifying than "critiques of Dudamel have become super-charged by his ‘otherness." From "supercharged" to it’s “perhaps ethnicity is a part of it.” Less voltage, wouldn’t you say? Finally comes the big qualifier, the big “get out of foot-in-mouth jail” card:
          “But I tend to think that the other biases I described are likely the more compelling factors."
          Ahem. Ah, yes, he “tends to think that. . .” He’s not sure. He leans in that direction. He has a faint suspicion. Chin stroke, theatrical look of preoccupation, type type type type. . .I tend to think. . .that, ahem, the other biases I described. . .
Wait a second. Rainey “didn’t call anyone a racist,” but now he’s talking about “other biases?” Biases? Boinggg! Contradiction alert! So he is talking about a bias that is based on race/ethnicity, but it’s not. . .racism. Ah. Gotcha, James. A fine distinction. Or not.
          Hang in there, boxing fans, it gets even more fun. Now we get the second half of the biases sentence, something so thunderously firm, so conclusive, so foot-stompingly final, that, well, oh no, guess it isn’t, really:
          “. . .are likely the more compelling factors.”
          Likely the more compelling ahem factors. . .And there will be a mid-term on Friday. . .From "supercharged by his 'other-ness'" to "other biases likely the more compelling factors." Whoosh. I take it back. Rainey does not remind me of Bill Clinton. This sounds more like the measured, restrained, and utterly limp language of Barack Obama.

Feel the marketing pasion: from phone apps to T-shirts.

          But this is no surprise, considering Rainey's original statement, which, of course, was disguised as a thoughtfully posed, mild question. Here it is yet again, just for fun:
          “Is it possible — though no one says it, or perhaps even thinks it consciously — that the same critiques of Dudamel have become super-charged by his ‘otherness’ — the conductor who is too hot and too Latin for some traditional tastes?”
          Is it possible. . .The old anti-assertion assertion device. Sure, anything’s possible, except getting Oprah and Glenn Beck to shut up. From there, though, things get almost metaphysical:
          "Though no one says it, or perhaps even thinks it consciously. . ."
          Wow. No one says it, and no one even thinks it consciously. Yet Rainey insists that it's there. Well, he must be very canny, and gifted with enormous psychoanalytical instincts, if not supernatural powers. Why, these critics are doing things for reasons that only Rainey understands. I mean, if no one says it, or even thinks it, isn’t it remarkable that Rainey can suss it out!
          I have already covered the sly injection of the nuclear term, super-charged, in the middle of all the soft, buttery “is it possible” atmosphere, so let’s skip to my very favorite part of Rainey’s pussyfeeting. . .
          Yowzah. Now we’re cooking with academic gas. Otherness. For those who are new to this term, it’s sort of the opposite of togetherness. I love it. It has a nice master’s thesis cache, and is much easier on the ears than “race,” “ethnicity,” or even the sort of passé “nationality.”
          Yet it turns out that the man targeting “otherness” finds himself guilty of the same “otherly” love. Yes, here is where the columnist finally Raineys on his own parade. And when it Raineys, it’s poor:
          "The conductor who is too hot and too Latin for some (some, not all) traditional tastes?"
          Gasp. This is so amusing. Rainey, in trying to paint, say, Anthony Tommassini of the New York Times, as motivated in part by a reaction to Dudamel’s race(!), introduces. . .racist stereotype! The snake eats itself! He has out-othered the other.
          Let's be blunt: just what do you mean by these things, James? You weren’t specific. Are you dealing in a stereotype of the swarthy, oversexed “latin lover?” Is that what “too hot” means? Or is that what “too Latin” means? You’re not clear. Can you elaborate? Hmm?
          This is race-baiting, and that’s all it is. Maybe Rainey doesn’t say it, or perhaps even think it consciously, but that’s what it amounts to. When you have no evidence, no grounds, nothing to remotely suggest that racism figured into the various critics’ musical analyses of Dudamel’s conducting---not one sentence---and you nonetheless make the suggestion that it did, what else to call it?
          It is inflammatory, it is irresponsible, and it is stupid. It betrays Rainey’s ignorance of the world he was trying to write about: symphonic music, and music criticism. He’s in way over his reactionary liberal chin-stroking head.
          Worst of all, at a time when the country needs no more racial/ethnic rancor, Rainey added gratuitous ugliness to the mix. Imagine people reading that column, especially ethnic minorities, and thinking, “Mm-hm. There it is. The evil white man again!”
          Nice going, Rainey Man.
          James, here is a little perspective for you. I know, I know, you don’t care. You didn’t thank me for last week’s column, and you won’t thank me for this one. I'm just an "angry blogger." But you know, I’m sort of altruistic, if not quixotic, in my work. I like to offer help, whether it is wanted or not.
          For your information, “previous-issue conductors," as you so weirdly call them, and “present-issue conductors,” include: African-Americans, persons from Czechoslovakia, India, Spain, Mexico, Japan, China, Finland, Italy, Korea, Peru, New Zealand, and even that remote, strange place, North Hollywood (Michael Tilson Thomas.) Modern symphony orchestras are polyglot, and composers come from every culture.
          What's more, I'll bet you original Beethoven 9th boxed set conducted by Erich Kleiber that the critics in question do not bat an eye at the ethnicity or nationality of a conductor (or the gender), or think in terms of "the other." I mean, they review music written by composers from Brazil, interpreted by conductors from Israel, played by symphony orchestras from scores of nationalities and ethnicities. There is probably nothing more globalist in make-up today than the world of music. Ever hear that phrase, “Music is the international language?”
          I mean, in globalist reality, who exactly is the “other,” James? You?
          And not incidentally, the columnist seems to have assumed that all the critics he cited are white U.S. citizens who have perhaps spent their lives behind plows. Who think that Venezuela, Dudamel's country of origin, is a city with a lot of canals. Talk about race-based assumption. Critics, I think it's fair to generalize, tend to be educated, if not worldly. Music critics also tend to be musicians, often speak more than one language, and have usually spent a good deal of time abroad. I have never known a single socially conservative music critic, by the way, which brings up another amazing facet of Rainey’s initial statement: that critics might have problems with “the conductor who is too hot and too Latin for some traditional tastes.”
          As if all critics are stodgy conservatives, not only rejecting the “hot Latin” out of subconscious bias, but adhering to strict traditional sensibilities, whatever these might be. The statement presupposes traditionalist mentality on the part of critics, which---sorry to disappoint, Rainey---is one of the last places, at least these days, that you find. . .traditionalist mentality. Whatever that is.
          If you take the time to actually read some music criticism, James, you will see that modern critics tend to overwhelmingly encourage new music, new repertory, new conductors, new interpretations, new productions. Even if they find fault with them. But don’t take it from me. Ask your colleague, the decidedly untraditionalist Mark Swed, whose championing of new borders on notorious.
          For the record, I scanned the L.A. Phil/Dudamel reviews Rainey singled out last week, and not one---not one---made any reference to “Latin” qualities. So I looked further, and---hijo de la chingada!---I found one. It was an overt---not subconscious---reference in a review by Andrew Patner in the Chicago Sun-Times.
          But it was a. . .compliment:
          “But you could certainly hear that the orchestra left by Dudamel’s predecessor Esa-Pekka Salonen, has strong individuals and sections, albeit with a troubling lack of coherence across the otherwise fine winds. And the positive side of the freedom Dudamel gives his players includes a physicality and even swaying associated more with Latin and Italian ensembles."
          Hmm. I don’t know that Dudamel’s belief in physicality as a means of expression is “Latin,” and frankly, I don’t know if the notion that “swaying” as a particular characteristic of Italian/Latin playing is just a stereotypical myth. . .And no less valid than noting how German orchestras have been traditionally more rigid in posture. But this is hardly a denigrating thing to say. Unless, of course, you are one of those rabid ethnocentrists who find racists in your corn flakes.
          But let us examine the salient criticism in Patner's Sun-Times review:
          "In a new addition for this tour, Tchaikovsky’s B minor “Pathetique” Sixth Symphony, Op. 74, Dudamel often went more for effect than either deep or subtle understanding. As was the case even more so with the first encore, the Intermezzo from Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut, too often the dynamic choices were two: loud and louder. These emphases made for a third movement march both well-paced and stirring, but not much else in the rest of the work.
          "Most disconcerting, though, is Dudamel’s continuing difficulty – or lack of concern? – with section balances and ensembling. An experienced conductor should be able not only to prepare and lead his own interpretation of a piece but to detect and fix problems in performance quickly and correctly. Dudamel seemed so caught up in his conception of the work that he appeared not to notice lack of dynamic and rhythmic synch, ragged patches and peculiar drops in tension after big effects.
          Find anything racist there? Or even racial? Anything "supercharged?" Anything talking about the "hot Latin," or the "other" from some mysterious Otherland? Find any hint of such a thing, James? No. You find articulate musical analysis, which is very, very similar to criticisms Dudamel has sustained elsewhere. Musical criticisms. Except for the complimentary reference to "swaying" in this write-up, all the reviews in question concerned themselves only with musical factors. Shocking! The technical criticisms---a strident flute here, out of balance horns there---are all provable. Criticisms of Dudamel’s interpretations, granted, are more subjective, yet all the critics remarked on this same deficiency---independently.
          Sheesh again.
          Dudamel is an enthusiastic (in spades), earnest, well-intentioned, brilliant conducting prodigy, but there are legitimate problems with his interpretations and conducting (and in building rapport with the L.A. Phil.) Even Swed, famously light-handed in his criticism of the L.A. Phil, confirms these things in a May 31 Times column:
          "While most of the musicians in the orchestra adore him, a few complain that Dudamel belabors points. They miss Esa-Pekka Salonen's focus and sense of organization. . .In October, Dudamel premiered a somewhat jumbled if impressionistically impressive vision of jangly L.A. in "City Noir." Last week in New York, Adams' flamboyantly complex, syncopated, dense symphony had become a masterfully spontaneous caper. Dudamel pushed too hard for polish."
          In short, there is really nothing “other” at all about Dudamel, other than his being young and still growing, still honing his interpretations, still getting to know the L.A. Phil. But don’t tell that to James "hot Latin" Rainey, or the L.A. Phil ad people, who shamelessly exploited poor Gustavo's nationality with a gigantic campaign en espanol, touting his “pasion” (it's actually spelled with two s's, but the ad men wanted it to look Spanish), and wild podium poses. Gustavo electrico!, they proclaimed, with shots of the man appearing to be in the throes of animal, sybaritic ecstasy. If there has been any exploiting of “the other,” it has been on the part of the Phil to help sell the "hot latino" to the public. Which I find terribly racist, and terribly sad.
          After all, he’s American, isn’t he?

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