In LA, Dudamel's influence extends beyond the concert hall

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In LA, Dudamel's influence extends beyond the concert hall
A banner outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall shows Gustavo Dudamel standing with several musicians, in Los Angeles on Feb. 7, 2023. The news that Dudamel is leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic for New York was a blow to a city where he has been much more than a conductor. (Lauren Lancaster/The New York Times)

by Adam Nagourney and Javier C. Hernández

LOS ANGELES, CA.- For more than 13 years, Gustavo Dudamel has been the public face of an orchestra that became the envy of the nation and the pride of this city.

He began his tenure as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director in 2009 with a free concert at the Hollywood Bowl, followed by a performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall — where he paired Gustav Mahler with the premiere of a John Adams piece evoking postwar Los Angeles, drawing ecstatic ovations.

Offstage, he became a symbol of youth and energy and inspiration for the growing community of Latinos here. He promoted the idea that classical music can be for everyone, creating the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which has trained thousands of aspiring teenage musicians and now has a home of its own — designed, like Disney Hall, by Frank Gehry — in a refurbished bank in Inglewood.

So Dudamel’s announcement Tuesday that he is leaving LA for the New York Philharmonic was a strike at the soul of this city, an event that signals how huge a civic figure Dudamel, 42, has become both on and off the podium.

“To see him leave is going to be very hard,” said Gehry, who has become Dudamel’s close friend and collaborator. “But he’s got to grow. He’s got to go. He’s got to go where the world takes him. He’s young. He’s certainly top of the line as a conductor. I’ll go to New York to hear him.

“He was worried,” Gehry added, “that I was going to get mad with him, but I’m not.”

From the moment that Dudamel, a little-known 26-year-old conductor from Venezuela, was signed to a five-year contract to replace Esa-Pekka Salonen as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, he emerged as a celebrity in a city that celebrates celebrities. Which he was — charming and charismatic, given a nickname ( “the Dude”), with his face beaming from larger-than-life posters outside the Bowl and Disney Hall and, eventually, his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Dudamel’s talent and star power have helped elevate the Philharmonic into one of the leading American orchestras, one that uses the box office revenues generated by near-sellout crowds at the Hollywood Bowl to lure top talent and experiment with innovative programming, often pioneering the work of living composers. His accomplishments, prominence and lack of pretense — it is not uncommon to spot him shopping at his local Gelson’s supermarket — will make him a particularly difficult figure to replace.

“When they asked me to talk to him when he was first coming, I was excited,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of LA from 2005 to 2013. “I was intrigued about the possibility of a great, young conductor who was gaining notoriety around the world and was Latino.

“I’ll tell you something: He came here with a bang,” Villaraigosa said. “He’s mesmerizing and is someone who really had a cultural impact on this town.”

The Philharmonic has some time before Dudamel leaves for New York. Given its national reputation and history as an incubator of celebrated music directors — before Dudamel, there was Salonen and Zubin Mehta — it is in a strong position as it begins to recruit a successor. And since Dudamel’s appointment in 2021 as the music director of the Paris Opera, this could not have been a total shock for the executives at Disney Hall: It’s easier to fly to Paris from New York than from LA.

In an interview, Dudamel said that the Philharmonic would have little trouble finding a new conductor of his stature. “Oh, no, I don’t think so,” he said when asked if it would be hard to replace him. “I think LA is a place that embraces new things all the time. This is something I love about this city. The orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the board, the community will find the right person to look to the future.”

Simon Woods, president of the League of American Orchestras, who served briefly as the CEO of the Philharmonic, called this “a huge opportunity as well as a huge loss.”

“You have to remember, the LA Phil has a long history of hiring music directors at the beginning of their careers, at the point of maximum potential, and building great things with them,” he said. “Zubin Mehta. Esa-Pekka. And it certainly applies to Gustavo. Whatever direction they decide to go in, they have an opportunity to build a great era. The LA Phil is an organization that is genetically wired for innovation.”

Dudamel’s departure might give the Philharmonic the opportunity to do what the New York Philharmonic did not: to become the biggest major American orchestra to appoint a woman as its music director.

Several of the most prominent figures being mentioned as possible successors are women. Among them are Susanna Mälkki, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor and outgoing chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. (Chad Smith, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s CEO, said in 2021 that “Susanna has to be at the top of anyone’s list.”) Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla — who was a Dudamel Fellow and later an associate conductor at the Philharmonic, and whose international career has since taken off — is often mentioned, though she has said she is not interested in becoming a music director right now. Dalia Stasevska, who was born in Ukraine and lives in Finland, is scheduled to conduct the orchestra next month.

Given the stakes, the Philharmonic likely will cast a wide net. Other possible candidates include Paolo Bortolameolli, an associate conductor in LA; Rafael Payare, music director of the San Diego Symphony and another former Dudamel fellow; Lorenzo Viotti, principal conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dutch National Opera; and Teddy Abrams, music director of the Louisville Orchestra, who is scheduled to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl this summer.

The Philharmonic is clearly a prime perch for any up-and-coming or established conductor. “The ascendancy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is the salient event in American orchestral life of the past 25 years,” Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, wrote in 2017. A headline in The New York Times that same year read, “Los Angeles Has America’s Most Important Orchestra. Period.”

Dudamel helped it thrive. He loved classical music crowd-pleasers like Mahler, Richard Wagner and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — and championed a production with the Deaf West Theater Company of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidelio”— but he also pushed his audiences to consider work of lesser-known composers.

“I keep praising this orchestra,” Adams, the composer, said wryly. “No other orchestra’s going to want to play my music.”

Dudamel always sought to expand the audience of the Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl beyond what had long been portrayed (not entirely fairly) as a white, middle-class base on the West Side — and pushed this growing audience out of their comfort zones.

“We cannot be sitting here and expecting people to come to us,” Dudamel said in 2017, during an interview backstage at Disney Hall. “That is too arrogant. We have to go to the community. We have to change.”

He was not a snob and was happy to appear on the Bowl stage with pop stars, who drew crowds and revenues that helped support the orchestra. At the Bowl this summer, Dudamel is leading performances of Giuseppe Verdi and Sergei Prokofiev but also headlining shows that celebrate Duke Ellington and Café Tacvba, the pioneering Mexican rock band.

Mark Volpe, who retired in 2021 after running the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 23 years, said that New York and LA were both cities that celebrated fame and prominence; from that perspective, Dudamel’s move seemed natural. “In both cities, the cult of personality is so pervasive,” he said. “And he’s got it.

“Look at the history: Mehta, Andre Previn,” Volpe added. “It will be initially disruptive and disconcerting, but it’s in a very attractive position.”

Smith said in an interview that he was always aware that Dudamel might move on one day but that, under him, the orchestra had achieved such a level of stability and stature that he was not worried about the next era.

“We’ve had a chance to watch him embed his DNA into this organization,” he said. “We have taken him at his word that this is the next chapter of his life. And that is something that every creative artist wants.”

Adams said that it would not be easy to replace Dudamel: “It’s just hard to lose him. That’s all I can say. He’s transformed the community there not only by his musicianship and what he’s done with the orchestra but also by bringing in a lot of focus on Latin American culture.

“They just have been on such a wonderful roll,” Adams said. “It’s been an incredible experience to be associated with them.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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