Truth is symphonic (iii) – The Empires strike back

In part 3 of this post, I would like to turn to issues of conducting, focusing on Gustavo Dudamel, currently the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

Let me start with a confession. I personally tend to react allergically to promotional hype and am generally intensely suspicious of young maestri placed in front of major orchestras at an early age. There are many reasons for my scepticism, but one of my principal complaints is that in recent decades, the time-honoured tradition whereby conductors were drawn from the ranks of orchestral musicians, opera répétiteurs and composers seems to have been replaced by a fashion for ambitious young baton-wavers without any rank-and-file experience or understanding of music from the inside, pushed into the limelight by managers on the strength of success in conducting competitions or slick marketing videos. This goes hand in hand with a view inculcated by the music industry in its cult of eternal youth and perpetual novelty that the conductor is essentially a born genius belonging to a different species from those s/he leads, whose job consists of the imposition of an individual vision on a group of servants by an act of irresistible will. Many of these young conductors certainly have talent and attitude by the sackful, but what they frequently lack is any meaningful apprenticeship within structures of music-making which would i) allow them to appreciate the bewilderingly complex artistic and human parameters involved in the act of performance (this is perhaps most glaring in opera, where a degree of flexibility in decision-making is demanded of the conductor which far exceeds that required by a symphonic concert) and ii) give them some basic notions of humility.

Fortunately there are some recent signs of a return to a saner view of the role of the maestro; regarding the younger generation I can for example point to the rise to prominence of Alain Altinoglu – a former colleague of mine from the trenches at Opera Bastille, where I worked on and off for a number of seasons -, who has just made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with a production of Carmen which will also travel to the Chicago Lyric Opera in October. Although he is now in great demand in the world’s most renowned houses, Alain has always been at pains to stress the value of his early training as a piano accompanist and member of the backroom staff at the Paris Opera, seeing his current work on the podium in terms of a deep continuity with his days as a musical apprentice. Anyone who has worked with him for any stretch of time will know the merits of a conductor who has emerged from within the unglamorous world of tiny rehearsal cubicles and prompters’ boxes where the fundamentals of operatic conducting are learnt the hard way.

Alain Altinoglu

A similar sort of continuity, though with an added social dimension, is very evident in Gustavo Dudamel’s leadership of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra; not only was he himself an orchestral violinist, but those whom he now directs are the same musicians with whom he spent much of his childhood. Having himself been nurtured like them by José Antonio Abreu’s El Sistema, it is logical that he should conceive of his role in relation to the orchestra differently from that of an imported maestro. There is certainly no lack of genuine individuality in his conducting, but there is no sense of an isolated individual standing against the collective. Instead his personal energy relates to that of the group by way of mutual reinforcement. What is striking about the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra is the incredible physical engagement of all the players (especially notable in the string section when compared with the majority of European orchestras, in which the level of physicality normally decreases with distance from the podium). No hierarchical logic of domination in operation here – these are musicians who, on the contrary, clearly feel empowered by their musical director rather than constrained -, yet neither is there an impression of ‘mob rule’ as can be the case when an orchestra dominates a weak conductor by sheer weight of numbers.

It is interesting to consider how something of this unique dynamic also appears to operate between Dudamel and the forces in Los Angeles (even if their latest American tour seems – almost inevitably – to have provoked something of a critical backlash). A couple of months ago I decided to put a video of a Hollywood Bowl performance by Dudamel of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under the microscope and was intrigued to see the results of the re-appropriation of this Old World masterpiece in a Pacific Rim context. Naturally the unabashed populism of this kind of event may not be to everyone’s taste. If what you are looking for is Olympian grandeur, intimations of the Kantian sublime, a musical counterpoint to the depth of Germanic philosophy, then look elsewhere. Similarly if what you are after is a historically-informed exploration of performance practice issues à la Roger Norrington. But what you get is perhaps more authentically Beethovenian than a rendition based on literalistic adherence to the composer’s metronome markings and non-vibrato string tone; what comes across more than anything else is the sheer elation not merely of the orchestra but above all of a chorus formed largely of Latino, Asian and African Americans at being able to claim as their own an artistic heritage once reserved for a white elite. In Dudamel’s appointment with the L.A. Philharmonic these choral singers clearly see mirrored their own cultural enfranchisement. The use of Beethoven 9 as an icon of ‘universal fraternity’ may seem so well-worn as to be nothing more than a tired cliché, but here it seems imbued with fresh and unexpected vigour. I was especially struck by the sense of struggle in Dudamel’s reading of the contrapuntal section following the central ‘Seid umschlungen’ passage; at this point it is frequent for the whirling motifs of the violins to be reduced to a virtuosic but decorative accompaniment to the choral theme on its return, but not so here. Instead, each note is allowed to make its impact, while every choral interjection of the word ‘Freude!’ is given its full declamatory weight.  The overall feeling is the same as that encapsulated in the motto of El Sistema –  ‘tocar y luchar’ (‘play and fight’). Not so much the meeting of  Beethoven with Schiller as much as the deaf composer’s encounter with South America’s liberator Simon Bolivar – maybe a truer return to the revolutionary ideals of Beethovenian thought than the backdrop of Tinseltown’s open-air amphitheatre and a forest of white tuxedos might at first suggest.

Simon Bolivar

This seems to tie in nicely with the penetrating cultural analysis offered by Penn State University Professor of History and Religious Studies Philip Jenkins in a remarkable study based on contemporary demographics entitled The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (revised edition 2007). In it Jenkins describes some of the ways in which the Christian centre of gravity in the world is shifting rapidly and inexorably towards the southern continents, changes which are also engendering profound and surprising transformations within the Northern Hemisphere. Whereas once it was northern missionaries who spread the Gospel southwards, we now see a startling inversion of the paradigm, with immigrants from the global south injecting new life into an increasingly secularized First World by remaining faithful to a Christian spiritual legacy that the north (and particularly Western Europe) once confidently exported but has now abandoned. Gustavo Dudamel’s move from Caracas to Los Angeles at the helm of forces drawn from the formerly colonized nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia would seem to be an exact musical analogue of such a reversal. Here are a conductor and musicians rejoicing in their exuberant performance of music from a culture that once imposed itself upon them by force – to use Jenkins’ memorable description, ‘The Empires strike back’!


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