Sunday, 7 August 2011

Dudamel's Mahler Prom 29 - why?

So people queued round the block for Gustavo Dudamel's Mahler Second Symphony, BBC Prom 29, and no doubt they had fun when they got in. But why? Hardly had the Prom ended and my mailbox started filling with exasperated comments. That's not news, though it might be to some. What is news is the Dudamel Phenomenom, how it came about and where it might be going. 

The media work overtime whipping up hype. But does anyone actually listen to the music? As I've said before, I don't take potshots at easy targets. The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra deserves respect because of what they've come from and achieved against the odds. It was genuinely heart warming to see their faces shine with enthusiasm. That's something they can always be proud of, and good for them. But there are worthy orchestras everywhere, even in places like Kinshasa,in the Congo, which is much poorer than Venezuela. The SBSO are not "international circuit" quality but they deserve appreciation for who they are.

Dudamel, on the other hand, left them behind long ago, in terms of success and exposure, even though he still conducts them in between his big money gigs with LA, Berlin etc. That's good because it shows he remembers his roots. But at this stage in his career, he can't rely any more on the emotive appeal of El Sistema and youthful antics like waving flags.

In 2004, Dudamel won the Bamberg Conducting Competition. That was its first year, and it didn't attract the attention it gets now, but winning Bamberg led to a huge recording contract. When Big Money invests in someone, they control the strings. My friends and I quite liked the 2004 Dudamel as he was fresh and promising  Rattle and Abbado were great supporters, since both of them have a huge committment to supporting young musicians. Dudamel's London performances didn't raise a ripple (Andrew Clements reviewed one) but that's OK. Then, Lucerne. Tom Service gets flown over to Swittzerland and writes an ecstatic interview. Come the next London concert, mass hysteria. Then the 2007 BBC Prom and the rest is history.

How the snowball rolled is fascinating. Dudamel may or may not be the first Youtube discovery, but thousands of people all over the world heard short clips and told their friends. People who might never have listened to  a full concert suddenly discovered classical music. Which again, is a Good Thing, if they continue to listen and learn.  But it isn't necessarily good for music. The following year when Dudamel conducted Berlioz Symphonie fantastique someone on a discussion board, claiming to be a music professor, declared "This is how it should be played" though admitted he'd never heard the piece before, which is a little odd for a music professor. Doesn't say much for some of the "fans".

What excites that kind of audience isn't musicianship but showmanship. Nothing wrong with showmanship per se. Where would Paganini, Chopin etc have been without showmanship? Arguably, pianists and other soloists need flair to make an impact. Conductors, too - think Bernstein and Gergiev. But good solid musicianship should underpin any display. That's the challenge Dudamel has to face now. Maybe he can see through the hype and develop himself critically. But maybe audiences want persona more than substance. Maybe they want to roar. It's normal human behaviour to go with the crowd.  It might be a lot of fun in a place like the Royal Albert Hall when everyone's adrenalin is high, but that's not necessarily the best way to evaluate performance.

Dudamel has to deliver what the audience demand, whether or not they know or care much about the repertoire.  Maybe his job involves playing to the audience, but it should primarily be based on playing the music. And audiences need to think about what they're responding to - atmosphere, the innate quality of the music being played, actual performance standards and the emotional effect of publicity. Mahler eludes some very good conductors indeed, but he's so ubiquitous now and often so badly played that it's hardly surprising that audiences don't mind. I watched the BBC TV broadcast of Prom 29 but came away overwhelmingly depressed. Someone told me that after an earlier Dudamel Prom he felt like a secret dissident at a mass rally. But for me, it feels like tragedy, to hear what media frenzy can do to a musician.

PLEASE read the comments below. This debate isn't about Dudamel but about the way we can be manipulated by the media, (both press and social media). If a performance "needs" to be heard in a mass rally situation, the appeal isn't necessarily musical. After more than 40 years of listening to Mahler I listen to performance as music and don't need mass frenzy to influence me.


Malcolm said...

Crap. Your review, not the performance.

Doundou Tchil said...

You think whay you think, I think what I think.

Alejo said...

The SBSO "are not "international circuit quality"?

Strong affirmation and no evidence to support it, beyond your own words.

This review was a waste of time. It doesn't comment on orchestral performance or artistic merit. It's only an display of its author's prejudices.

My advice: instead of telling others how to improve, you should work on your own (limited) writing abilities.

Gavin Plumley said...

And there are lots of hugely valid points in here... so bravo for saying it. But the experience live was vivid and Mahlerian. Tempi were occasionally very slow and playing could be ragged, but the scale and shape of the live performance was mightily impressive.

But while your points are valid, we have to be careful about maintaining the recognition that 'classical' music deserves and then berating one of its most visible exponents.

Roger Thomas said...

In her BBC2 TV introduction to this concert, Katie Derham bizarrely described the third movement of Mahler 2 as an orchestral version "of one of Mahler's bleaker songs, which suggests life is meaningless". But Des Antonius von Padua Fishpredigt is not bleak; it's satirical, even humorous, and what it's about is people who hear but refuse to listen. So it's a neat summation of the problem of Malcolm and the other uncritical fans of Dudamel's interpretation.

Doundou Tchil said...

Ale3jo, i'm not actually reviewing the operformance because it would not be fair on ,members ofd the orchestra who I think did their best, and good for them. What they need is a good full time conductor who develops them well. They deserve better.

What i am writing about is the Dudamel phenomenom which is a separate matter. It is a sociological phenomemnom, created by the media, spread by new technology. This has effects on public knowledge, taste and also on performers themselves. As I've said it is a tragedy that the media takes control of things so people don't develop in a more mature way.

Doundou Tchil said...

Roger, One of the interesting things about this symphony is the way Mahler reuses the song in the symphony in a slightly different way. But he is still uses the point ruefully, to emphasize the fact that the fishes are much too caught up in their petty games to listen to the message. As somoene elsewhere has said, it's not enough to know the notes by heart, it's getting the musie out of them.This is a very deep symphomny and needs mature interpretation and understanding.

Doundou Tchil said...

Gavin, live experience and musical experience are not the same things. It's easy to get caughtup in a Party Rally atmosphere, which affects how the performancxe is recieved,. But that can be completely different from musically informed, analytical evaluation.

Of course the tempi were slow but that is no big deal whatsoever. Much of this symphony is supposed to be slow. Did you hear Haitink conduct it a few years ago ? That was slow to the point of comatose, the legato veering on the edge of falling apart but Haitink knew what he was doing, and why. Words like "vivid" and "Mahlerian" are meaningless on their own out of context.

I deliberately didn't "review" the performance because it's not fair on the orchestrawhio did their best. <uch more important is the way the Dudamel phenomenom has been developed, and the way new technology has created a new audience whose values aren't necessarily musical. Again the Party Rally simile pertains. Just as in politics, the more anyone learns and grows the less likely they are to be taken in by the crowd.

The mass market isn't necessarily interested in music or fine points of performance. Raising the profile of classical music doesn't mean raising musical ustabndrads or even deeeper comprehenskon. Instead, it creates a hardcore of those who think they know everything because they've heard one thing. Real knowledge comes from experience and is never finite. This new market predicates on instant gratification and certainity. The Tea Party Right in music, in some quarters, and in many ways.

Dudamel is a victim of this mob mentality. He didn't create the hype, but he's caught up in it. There have been doubts about him in more musically-focused circles for ages, but always for me there was the hope that he wouldn't succumb. Had he not been under so much media pressure maybe he might have developed differently. But t now he's trapped. What was sad about this performance wasn't the tempi, but the general lack of perspective. That isn't necessary if he's playing to an audience who just want thrills. Even Roger Norrington has an idea of where he wants to go, however misguided his ideas may be, and he knows that he's not doing what major Mahler conductors do.

Seymour said...

Some good comments in the posted review. I do think this orchestra sounds very good, plays very well.

And I wonder if Dudamel was playing against expectations in the first 2 movements? The Allegro just did not grab me as it usually does. The Allegretto really suffered most -- a dragging approach just vitiated the intended lightness of effect. Third movement, just fine, if not remarkable. The performance came into its own with the Urlicht and Finale. Tempi sounded just right, expansive but not lugubrious. Dudamel has what it takes, but he needs a more unified conception. As for all the hype, I try to ignore it. As others have said it's the music that matters, and the music of Mahler was definitely present at this concert.

Doundou Tchil said...

Thanks Seymour. It takes a conductor of extreme imagination, knowledge and sensitivity to defy expectations and there's no way Dudamel is mature enough to attempt that. As I mentioned before, Haitink did that a few years ago, with tempi so slow the line almost collapsed, but there was purpose behind it. It was audacious, yet amazingly it worked. Not so here. What made the ending worthwhile was the singing, Miah Persson was divine. It's good to discuss this rationally with you. There's so much hysteria round now, fashion victims, I think, who can't accept anything but extreme black and white.

Evan Tucker said...

Gavin: Trying to hush up criticism about a famous classical musician is about the worst possible PR a classical musician can get. Leonard Bernstein was lambasted in the New York Times every day for thirty years. That didn't make him any less popular with the public. What did make him less popular, in the 70's, was the sense that the music world had so coddled him that he felt entitled to produce whatever self-indulgent pieces he wanted (like Mass). Critical dissension from the norm is the sign of a healthy culture, not one that has to be kept on life support.

As it happens, I liked Dudamel's performance. It was far from the greatest I ever heard, but it was a personal, different view of a piece that is often goes from performance to performance in interchangeable interpretations.

Thomas Dent said...

'Even' Roger Norrington? How nice of you to even mention him.

This whole post is kind of pointless and unfair *unless* you do actually review the performance. If it was good, then the accompanying circus is justified. If it wasn't, for reasons that you can unambiguously point to, then indeed we have a problem.

But if you just say 'I deliberately didn't "review" the performance because it's not fair on the orchestra who did their best' ... well, that sounds just about as unkind, negative and condescending as you can get. It's an innuendo not a review.

Doundou Tchil said...

Anyone who listens for the music can cope with different opinions. It's the ones who need hype to tell them what to think that cannot accept that opinions will differ.

That is why hype is dangerous and why it's so important to be aware when we're being influenced by baying crowds and whatever.

Those who listen for music can take on board different opinions because they can learn more. Those whose opinions are shaped by others can't cope and resort to personal abuse and non-logic.

Anyone who listens musically is constantly learning and developing. So they're not threatened by other ideas. But many people don't listen musically. Unfortunately those are the ones who get hysterical.That's the opposite of musical thinking.

Tom, you're playing semantics. I have been listening to Dudamel long before most anyone else, and I've been listening to Mahler since 1968. I don't shape my views on the basis of one performance. It's perhaps significant that many serious Mahler fans steered clear of this Prom altogether, and many who heard it weren't as impressed as the media. Would you then deny them a right to an opinion ?

Doundou Tchil said...

What is this businesds about "reviews", anyway ? Any opinion is a form of review. A lot of formal reviews are often so superficial that they don't say anything. And reviews dont prove anything in themselves. The only real way to assess anything is to listen and learn.

Dee said...

For me, Seymour's assessment of the performance is spot on; dangerously slow tempi undermined the flow of the first three movements, but the Urlicht and Finale were wonderful - both moved me to tears (and I, too, have been a committed and discerning Mahlerian for 40 years!). But Doundou, if you look beyond the hype you'll see that Dudamel is 'the real deal' - one of the finest conductors of this century. Nigel Kennedy? Ridiculous hype, outstanding musician. Lang Lang? Ridiculous hype, self-indulgent showman. Dudamel? Ridiculous hype, great conductor. Never mind the roaring crowds; close your eyes to the hype, open your ears to the music and make your own mind up.

roberto said...

Dondou, Fine words about Dudamel.
I've been giving attention to him in the last 5 years, but he is still an artist suffering too much pressure. It's enough! Always him in every place. Always the same thing about “Energy” and “Love”. Always people talking about his full of energy gesture, which in fact do not create any sound at the end. LA media machine and people like Norman Lebrechet, inflicting every time for every concert the perfect statement. There is no god and not so god points, but always extremely perfection. Every time, I’ve been listen to audiences “pre manufactured” opinion even before the concert starts.
Let's change the subject for a while. Let’s give time to Dudamel correctly develop his skills without the pressure to be the savior of the music.

Doundou Tchil said...

Many, many thanks, Roberto ! What you say is exactly what I mean. Almost no-one can stand that kind of pressure without becoming trapped. Which is why I said it was a "tragedy", because it stops anyone from developing as an artist. The trouble is that a lot of these "fans" don't actually care about him, they're not even interested in the music. They treat musicans like monkeys in a cage who have to dance or they don't get food. For some people music is just another "flag" to wave to beat up on other people. Thank goodness there are people like you who care about Dudamel and SBSO as musicians and human beings. Musicians need time and space to develop, and real fans know that. Fake "fans" don't care.