Thursday night I attended 28 year old Gustavo Dudamel's inaugural concert as music director of the LA Philharmonic. I saw him conduct the orchestra many times last season, so the novelty this night wasn't seeing him in action as much as it was experiencing the city's reaction to his coronation.
That's what it felt like: a coronation. The block of Grand Ave. in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall was closed off for a post-concert gala. Magenta spotlights lit up the brushed metal skin of the concert hall, and a carpet of matching hue ran from the sidewalk up to the entrance. Shouts from the photographer's den rang out each time a movie star strolled past, Hollywood having gained, for this night at least, a newfound appreciation for classical music. In my brief stroll up to the entrance, I saw Rachel Griffiths, Andy Garcia, and Jason Schwartzman. Even those people I didn't recognize were dressed to the nines this night; I felt almost bourgeois in my suit.
My seats this night were in the orchestra viewing area, behind the orchestra, directly below the organ, facing the conductor's podium. It felt like sitting behind home plate at a baseball game. I was concerned the music would sound odd given my seat location, but the acoustic qualities of that hall are so magnificent that the music sounded fine, if spatially reversed.
The first piece was the world premiere of Charles Adams' "City Noir." It is a jazz-infused symphony which the program noted would be the first in a triptych of pieces inspired by the California experience. I never played many jazzy classical pieces growing up, so these types of pieces are more opaque to me. As with many Adams' pieces, I found moments to be evocative and mysterious, with echoes of familiar sounds, but the overall emotional construction was challenging to grasp.
At intermission, complimentary flutes of champagne were set out on tables on each floor. If the interior of the space were more ornate, the gowns on the women a bit puffier, the men's tuxedo shirts a bit more ruffled, we could have been in 18th century Vienna, so excited the crowd seemed to be for classical music.
If Simon Cowell were to offer Dudamel any advice this night, I suspect he would have lauded the song selection. After intermission Dudamel selected Mahler's First Symphony. It's one of my favorites, a piece that showcases so many sections of an orchestra and builds to a rousing finale that is standing ovation ready.
More importantly, Dudamel clearly loves it, conducting from memory. Many times throughout the piece, he broke out in smiles of pure joy. The piece plays to one of his strengths, his ability to draw from his players a torrent of intensity and power. Were there rough patches to give ammunition to the inevitable naysayers? Sure. A bass solo was hit one note flat, the first violin section may not be as precise as one would like, and perhaps the horn section from Chicago which I listened to in my youth is stronger.
But I have yet to attend a Dudamel concert that wasn't exciting. Part of it is his style on the podium, the sheer variety of his broad gestures, as if willing the desired emotion from each phrase of the piece. I could hear his sharp intakes of breath whenever he launched the orchestra into a crescendo.
So moved was the audience that they broke out in applause between the first and second movements. As Dudamel led the orchestra towards the finale of the piece, I got goosebumps, and when he hit the final note, the crowd leapt to its feet in an outpouring of ecstasy I've never seen at a classical performance. About the third time he emerged to acknowledge the cheers, magenta and silver confetti rained down from the ceiling.
Will Dudamel save classical music? It's a silly question but often asked of him. Soccer has a better chance of becoming a major part of the U.S. sports landscape. I didn't see any significant shift in the demographics of the audience this night, nor would I expect to see any such shift in the years to come. It will take more than a conductor to restore classical music to a central role in the cultural landscape for the youth of tomorrow.
But perhaps classical music can continue to survive and thrive at the periphery, sustained by a core base of passionate fans. So much of culture has fractured that all that may be needed is enough of a fan base to fill the hall to 75% some 4 nights a week for seven or eight months a year. If TV shows like Friday Night Lights and Mad Men and The Wire could survive with their somewhat scant (by TV industry standards) but dedicated audiences, why not classical music?
Energizing the base may not be a sufficient strategy if you're the Republican Party, say, and require a majority to return to position of relevance among the next generation, but for this classical music fan, converting the heathen is orthogonal to my enjoyment (and given that just about every Dudamel show this season has sold out already, might be counter to it!). Dudamel is an electric new presence in the classical world, and that's plenty fine for me.