One day in 2005, Ernest Fleischmann, former honcho of the Philharmonic and now of the musical world at large, invited me to lunch, a frequent and pleasant occurrence. This time there was good food, plus a command. On no circumstance, came the order from Ernest On High, was I to miss the upcoming Hollywood Bowl debut of the conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Truth to tell, I had entertained every intention of missing that event; a late-season Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, with the trek to Cahuenga Pass long since grown tiresome, and the new opera season downtown beckoning, was something far down on the appeal scale.
But Ernest Fleischmann is, among his great attributes, a keen evaluator of young conducting talent. In his days of so-called retirement, he has spent much time as judge at major European conducting competitions. It is through his acumen that the Philharmonic had latched onto the services of Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Now, in the past couple of years, he has returned to us from happy hunting with a pair of estimable trophies: the 20-year-old Lionel Bringuier, who starts his first season as the Philharmonic’s assistant conductor this fall, and Dudamel, who made his North American debut at 24 at the Bowl on that night to remember.
Word was out; the place was crawling with agents from conductor-hungry orchestras. Onstage too the atmosphere was electric. “We knew right off that this was a special talent,” cellist Dan Rothmuller remembered when we talked at Monday’s press conference. I wrote about Dudamel in this space, about “fiery, consuming energy,” about “the extraordinary electricity that warmed the otherwise chilled crowd that night.” He returned for a Disney Hall concert of equal merit a year later, and now earns his own spotlight as music director–designate, with his actual tenure beginning, at age 28, in the fall of 2009.
You should have been at that press conference last Monday, to take in those smiling faces. Ernest was off in Berlin, but everybody else was on hand to say the right thing. The triumph, of course, was to have grabbed the hottest young conducting property right from the hot grasp of the other top orchestras that are desperately seeking conductors right now: New York, Chicago… the list goes on. (One devastated critic in Chicago — onetime home, after all, of the Black Sox — has already written a weeping “Say it ain’t so” article.) The greater triumph, as the spread of honcha Deborah Borda’s smile made clear, is for the Philharmonic, with this one bold swoop, to have won the right, and the mechanism, to reshape and to redefine the relationship between the classical repertory and its audience — today’s and tomorrow’s. You can fill up young Dudamel on caviar from Patina, but in his adorable opening speech, he also let on his passion for the hot dogs at Pink’s. He fended off some questions about a possible leaning toward the popular arts, but I would guess that when it comes to establishing a relationship between the so-called serious and pop, young Gustavo is at least as interested in tearing down fences as in mending them.
Esa-Pekka Salonen has moved the Philharmonic far along this conciliatory path, and it’s significant that he chooses to remain among us, to continue to capture the essence of this place in his music. I thought the huge turnout when he showed off his composition methods at the Apple Store a few weeks ago was a fair indication of the heightened stature he and the Philharmonic have attained here. The piece itself, the nine-minute Helix, was the right kind of serious, unflinching contemporary music to engage a young audience’s interest and pride. I imagine Dudamel’s manner of community outreach will be somewhat different. The important thing is that both musicians seem to me to be participants in an extraordinary rejuvenation within an art form whose demise some naysayers have all too glibly foretold. What delight to be riding along!
No Place Like Home
Jacaranda is home again. Renovations are done at Santa Monica’s First Pres; the place looks good and sounds great. Last Saturday’s homecoming concert drew as close to a sellout crowd as never mind. There’s your success story.
The program was all-American and all-remarkable. Two really rough-cut works trod with emphatic step. One was Frederic Rzewski’s piano setting of “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” from his North American Ballads, played by Scott Dunn, piano music that leaps off the keyboard to create a rural and menacing setting. Ben Johnston’s Fourth Quartet is also imbued with a rural atmosphere. Johnston, now 80, is the least known of our individualists, off in the woods somewhere devising tuning systems, teaching now and then, poking around in old hymnals and in Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone theories. This Fourth Quartet is probably his masterpiece; fiendish to play for its rhythmic complexity and because it keeps running off into odd scale patterns, it is also built around the old-timey hymn “Amazing Grace.” Jacaranda’s Denali Quartet handled it fearlessly, and made most else on the program — even Steve Reich’s Eight Lines for pianos, flutes, clarinets and larger string band — seem a piece of cake by comparison.
There was more and sweeter cake too, a piece by Morty Feldman: Who has even heard of his Between Categories? It’s for violins, cellos, pianos and chimes: two sets of each, answering each other, mostly pianissimo, across the front of the church: Imagine! Only those Jacaranda guys, Patrick and Mark, could have dug up a piece like that . . . and made it work. (It did, like a distant cloud passing far overhead.)
Scott Dunn began the program with a handful of Scott Joplin rags. Wonderful, rich, wistful pieces — “Solace” often has me in tears — these really constitute our American counterpart of Schubert or Chopin waltzes, and ought to be given equal prominence on concert programs. First, they need to be given substance; Dunn, an excellent and imaginative musician, lessened their value by omitting every one of the repeats. Something like that last refrain of “Solace” (remember it from The Sting?) needs the time to break our hearts. Cutting it short like that broke mine.