The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music matters: Gustavo Dudamel is The Ear’s Classical Musician of the Year and the Decade

January 1, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just a quick reminder: “New’s Year’s Day From Vienna” will be broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio Friday morning from 10 a.m. to noon; then at night on Wisconsin Public Television from 8 to 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Get your yearly dose of the Strauss family, with waltzes, polkas and marches from the Vienna Philharmonic under Georges Pretre.

At only 17, he started his career as a student conductor of a student orchestra in Venezuela.

Then, with that same student group, he went head-to-head with established names and made some critically acclaimed and best-selling recordings of mainstream repertoire (Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, and Mahler’s Fifth) for a major label (Deutsche Grammophon).

Then, at only 26, he was tapped by Esa-Pekka Salonen to be the next music director conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic where he went national and international with a TV broadcast this fall with the opening concert while the recording of the opening concert (a world premiere of “City Noir” by John Adams and Mahler’s Symphony No.1 “Titan”) that topped the charts.

A tour of the U.S., sure to be sold-out, is set for this May.

He is 28-year-old Gustavo Dudamel (below).

So, despite some stiff competition from other performers (cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Lang-Lang), composers (Osvaldo Golijov) and even administrators (the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb who instituted the affordable live and hi-def, satellite broadcasts that now go to more than 900 cinemas worldwide), Dudamel stands head and shoulders above the competition to be The Ear’s Classical Musician of 2009 and the Classical Musician of the Decade.

Make no mistake.

It’s not just Dudamel’s hair – that wonderfully unruly and curly mop that reflects his mood as much as his baton does — or his charming smile and enthusiastic and accented speech.

He has polish but is not yet a finished musician and has many years to grow and develop. We have, for example, yet to learn whether and how well he can conduct opera.

But the signs are all good and he is well on his way.

And he is a certifiable celebrity and phenomenon – the new Leonard Bernstein or Latin Lenny, the Barack Obama of Classical Music.

It will be interesting to watch his career progress and see where it takes him – and classical music.

He has some work to do with the LA Phil, but he is loyal to his players with whom he took his debut bows (below).

He has to build up a bigger repertoire.

He has to work with big-name artists many years his senior.

He has to help turn around the fortunes of classical music during a severe economic downturn.

He has to handle the incredible pressure of his job and his celebrity with grace and good humor, which he so far has done.

But most of all he has to help classical music build audiences by reaching young people and non-WASPs. He seems the right person to do that and has said outreach is a major priority.

He brings the kind of world interest to Western classical music that President Obama has brought to American politics and foreign policy.

Already his audiences and fans number in the tens of millions.

Already he has given a free concert in the Hollywood Bowl as proof of his attachment to community.

Plus, he is a living rebuff to those who wonder what contribution immigrants can make to America.

Already he has countered the idea that Western classical music is irrelevant to our time.

More children (and most of them poor children) in Venezuela also came out of the same “el sistema” he did, and more Venezuelan children now play classical music than organized sports. China too is seeing a flowering of Western classical music.

So, one asks, why isn’t the West more interested in itself and its own history? What have they learned they know that we have forgotten?

Western classical music is great art, and Dudamel knows it and makes no apologies for it. Even as he commissions new works, he cherishes the old tried-and-true classics. He knows they are both universal and timeless. It’s a reminder we sorely needed. The First World should thank the Third World.

Dudamel seems to favor high-octane, exciting and even edgy performances that reanimate so-called “museum music” and make for lifelong memories of live performances.

So, thank you, maestro Dudamel, and Happy New Year and Happy New Decade to you.

I am sure of this: We and the whole world will be seeing much more of him and hearing much more from him in the coming year and the coming decade.

He brings a future to Western classical music when everything from record sales to ticket sales made that future look bleak instead of bright.

What do you think of Dudamel?

Who would you name as Classical Musician of 2009?

Who would you name as Classical Musician of the Decade?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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