What Gustavo Dudamel's recordings reveal about his conducting
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What Gustavo Dudamel's recordings reveal about his conducting
The conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Feb. 9, 2023. The discography of the New York Philharmonic’s future music director suggests that he is an often agreeable maestro with a lot of work still to do. (Philip Cheung/The New York Times)

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- Seven years ago, not long after Jaap van Zweden had been proclaimed music director of the New York Philharmonic, I listened to every commercial recording of his that I could lay my hands on, to get a better sense of his conducting. I do not remember it exactly as a fun experience, when I have to remember it at all, nor one that flattered him that much.

Now that the Philharmonic’s next music director has been named, it’s Gustavo Dudamel’s turn.

This time, the exercise is a different proposition, and thankfully nowhere near as enervating. Van Zweden was hardly a household name when the Philharmonic hired him, and even avid collectors could have been excused for not staying abreast of his latest releases. Dudamel is a Hollywood-starred celebrity who enjoys a long-standing relationship with the Deutsche Grammophon label. On Friday, he will lead Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in his first Philharmonic appearance since his appointment, which takes effect in 2026.

The Philharmonic has high hopes for Dudamel, 42, but it probably has not hired him first and foremost to commit agenda-setting Beethoven and Brahms to disc, although he will make records anyway. It expects him to be a grander figure, a talisman who will gladden the jaded and enthuse audiences the orchestra has yet to enthuse.

His conducting has always been somewhat overshadowed by the blinding hype that surrounds his vision of music-making as a transformative social force. Claims that he is the “savior of classical music” are no longer as common as they once were, but other cliches have endured since he shot to stardom in the mid-aughts: that he stands musically for impetuous exuberance, say, or for perpetual youth. He still has to say, as he did to The New York Times in February, that he is “not a young conductor anymore.”

Dudamel has often suggested that he never was one. When Dudamel was 26, Bob Simon of “60 Minutes” asked if he was too young to be a conductor; he replied that he had been conducting since he was 12, adding that he still had a lot to learn. “I’m not so old. I’m 30,” he told critic Mark Swed in 2011. “But I feel old.” Likewise, plenty of critics have, over the years, described Dudamel’s approach as that of a much more senior musician; Alex Ross of The New Yorker has lately suggested that “he was, in a way, too mature from the start.”

Perhaps, then, it is best to listen to Dudamel’s recordings not only to hear a prodigy on the rise, but also for what he quickly became: a musician of significant experience who has had access to a starry cast of mentors for much of his career and has been working with the finest orchestras in the world for nearly two decades. On that basis, his discography ought to draw a warmer endorsement than it reasonably can.

That’s not to say it’s bad. Most of Dudamel’s recordings are perfectly listenable, and some are impressive, such as his set of the Ives symphonies with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he has led since 2009. Few of them anger or appall, although they tend not to support the supposed Dudamel of all-star energy; some of his readings are frankly rather staid. On the whole, he comes off as a very capable musician, but one who has not yet acquired the flair for details and the brilliance of imagination that marks a conductor as extraordinary.

It’s hard now to recall fully the superheated hysteria that Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela generated when they started mamboing through the concert halls of Europe and North America in their yellow, red and blue jackets. I was still a teenager when I unsuspectingly attended their near-mythical concert at the London Proms in 2007; a grown adult snatched one of those jackets out of my hands as the players hurled them into the euphoric crowd. That same year, a critic called Dudamel and the Bolívars “the greatest show on Earth.”

El Sistema, the education program from which the Bolívars emerged, later found itself caught in the darkening of Venezuelan politics; it took the fatal shooting of a young violist from the program, Armando Cañizales, during protests, for Dudamel to publicly oppose the regime of President Nicolás Maduro in 2017. He remains the music director of the Bolívars, who aged out of their youth orchestra billing long ago, and in November, he finally felt able to visit his homeland again after a long absence. In August, he will conduct the Bolívars for the first time in six years at the Edinburgh Festival. He sounds at his freest with this ensemble, which he calls “my family,” and their records together give a good, basic sense of his musical personality.

At the heart of Dudamel’s ethos is joy in musicianship, and nowhere is that more apparent than in “Fiesta,” his infectious recording of Latin American music. Early on, he thrived on heightening the emotional content of a score, which explains the tempo extremes that make his Tchaikovsky — one release of “Francesca da Rimini” and the Fifth Symphony, the other of Shakespearean fantasies — so thrillingly explosive when he finally gets to the quick stuff. That trait he has since moderated, although a recent Los Angeles Philharmonic account of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony suggests that he has not wholly abandoned it.

Other elements of Dudamel’s style are present and correct. He likes to emphasize the melodic shape of a work more than its harmonic grounding; a “Tristan” Prelude and Liebestod on an iffy Wagner collection is therefore pretty, but slack. There’s a certain rhythmic fluffiness, too, a reluctance to grant rhythms a precise character.

That means a fervent “Rite of Spring” falls short of being properly barbaric, and the same issue weighs down the entirely different repertoire of his 2017 New Year’s Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic, whose waltzes and polkas are often charming, but equally often lead-footed.

A lot of this has to do with the sound that Dudamel prefers, or at least grew up with. The Bolívars were a colossal orchestra, a visual as well as a musical spectacle, and their tonal mass was blunt, overpowering. It’s no surprise that their conductor favors a full sound. That’s not necessarily a problem; what is, though, is that his sound, as microphones catch it, can seem flat.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter so much: There is a patient Bruckner Ninth with the Gothenburg Symphony, which hosted Dudamel for an apprenticeship as its principal conductor from 2007-12, that satisfies despite its longueurs. But there isn’t enough tonal differentiation to enliven his Mussorgsky from Vienna or his Strauss with the Berlin Philharmonic, and the same issue creeps into some of his Mahler, including a Fifth Symphony with the Berliners that is more cautious and altogether less entertaining than the sweeping Fifth, with an endearingly drawn-out Adagietto, that he and the Bolívars set down in 2006. A Third from Berlin is similar: lucid, but not much more.

Then there is Dudamel’s Beethoven. His first recording with the Bolívars paired an unstable Fifth with a driving, bracing Seventh that is still astonishing to hear; alas, a subsequent “Eroica” is not; nor is a self-published cycle of the symphonies that dates to concerts in Venezuela in 2015. Slow and not entirely steady, this is such back-to-the-future Beethoven that it might have felt conservative two or three generations ago. I wouldn’t mind that if more of those readings were like his gratifying Fourth and had the formal security and dramatic tension that this aesthetic demands.

If the Los Angeles Philharmonic indeed became “the most important orchestra in America” during Dudamel’s tenure there, as Times critic Zachary Woolfe wrote in 2017, that success has been only partially audible on record. The dismal economic realities of the streaming age are such that not even Dudamel, for all his fame, gets the chance to tinker with his interpretations in a studio as earlier generations of conductors could.

Nor has Dudamel been able to preserve completely the loyalty to new music that he and his players have shown in performance. His recordings of Andrew Norman’s “Sustain” and Thomas Adès’ “Dante” ballet are hugely valuable, although I have heard Adès conduct parts of his score more audaciously. If nothing else, Dudamel’s Los Angeles discography matters as testimony to his support for John Adams: As well as pioneering accounts of “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” and “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,” there is a wonderfully spirited “Slonimsky’s Earbox.”

Caveats duly lamented, there is still enough to go on here. Dudamel’s early years at Walt Disney Concert Hall are well documented. Highlights include the exhilarating but soft-focused Bartok “Concerto for Orchestra” of his debut in January 2007, and an ambitiously mighty Brahms Fourth that won a Grammy. Most of the concert relays from that time are routine, though, and the uneven Mahler First from his inaugural gala in 2009 is worth hearing mostly as a baseline for the improvement in his later Los Angeles Mahler recordings. The warm, compassionate Ninth from 2012 could do with more snap and bite, but a tightly controlled Eighth from 2019 is effective.

What remains odd is that records that should have been easy home runs are not. It took five years for Deutsche Grammophon to release Dudamel’s “Nutcracker” after concerts in 2013, and although it is agreeable enough on a first listen, on a second, it becomes clear why: rhythmic timidity, along with colors that are a few shades duller than fairy-light bright. For every touching moment in Dudamel’s 2019 homage to his friend John Williams, similar reservations lurk. When Williams conducts the “Imperial March,” he can both scare you with the Empire’s fully operational battle power, as with the Berlin Philharmonic, and mock its vainglory, as with the Vienna Philharmonic. Dudamel makes no comment on it at all.

It’s these kinds of things that make you wonder. The New York Philharmonic has hailed Dudamel as Leonard Bernstein resurrected, as the man who will return the orchestra to the stature that it has, in truth, enjoyed only periodically in its history. But whatever else Bernstein was, he was a distinctive conductor. Who knows? Maybe Dudamel can become one, too. But he has work to do.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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