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The New World on the Two Coasts
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 22 October 2009

When a music director takes the helm of a major American orchestra, the inaugural concert should be not just a musical celebration but a statement of artistic mission. The recent debuts of Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic both showed how this can be done.

Here were two purposeful musicians, the 42-year-old Mr. Gilbert and the 28-year-old Mr. Dudamel, shaking up their institutions, generating excitement in their cities and conducting programs that began with the premieres of significant commissioned works, tokens of fresh offerings and festivals to come.

Concurrently New Yorkers lost an opportunity to assess how James Levine, 66, is doing at the Boston Symphony Orchestra after five years as its music director. We New Yorkers are interested parties, given Mr. Levine's central role at the Metropolitan Opera for the last 38 years. Unfortunately he had to undergo surgery to correct a spinal problem, forcing him to withdraw from conducting the Boston Symphony in the season-opening concert at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 1.

This is the third major health crisis Mr. Levine has grappled with over the last four years. It may be unfair to invoke illness as a metaphor. Yes, Mr. Levine has struggled to stay in shape, and anyone can take a fall onstage or develop a malignant cyst on a kidney (which was treated successfully).

Still, having revitalized the Boston Symphony after Seiji Ozawa's nearly 30-year tenure and having challenged Boston players and audiences with formidable contemporary works and numerous premieres, Mr. Levine seems to be in an artistic quandary at the orchestra.

In any case, the classical music field is abuzz about the new music directors on opposite American coasts, although buzz hardly begins to describe the scene in Los Angeles since the arrival of Mr. Dudamel, a boyish Venezuelan with charisma to burn. The city is swept up in Dudamania.

His real debut was part of a free concert on Oct. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl before 18,000 cheering people, a multicultural gala including master musicians and youngsters performing gospel, jazz, rock and Latino pop. It concluded with Mr. Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and 200 local choristers in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The performance during that four-hour program that most embodied Mr. Dudamel's vision, however, was given by 100 young people, mostly from minority families in South Los Angeles. The children were members of the youth orchestra program that the Los Angeles Philharmonic inaugurated two years ago, inspired by Mr. Dudamel, for whom a commitment to educating young people is encoded in his DNA. With Mr. Dudamel conducting, the players sawed through an arrangement of the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth as their proud families watched from prime seats in the front rows.

"You could see the hearts of the kids," Mr. Dudamel said four days later, during a brief interview in his office at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Instruments were placed in their hands only two years ago, he added, yet "they are already serious."

"They believe in what they are doing, like, 'O.K., we are musicians,' " he said. "This identity is everything."

During the 17-year tenure of Mr. Dudamel's predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic changed the perception of what an American orchestra could be. Other conductors have been part of this shift, especially Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony. But Los Angeles audiences are conditioned for adventure. They expect their orchestra to be inclusive, to offer new and experimental works, for living composers to be presences in the community, like John Adams, the orchestra's new chairman for contemporary programming.

Mr. Salonen built a modern orchestra that can dispatch a complex Ligeti score and handle the meter-fracturing challenges of a restless work like Mr. Salonen's own "L.A. Variations." But there has been a trade-off. The Los Angeles Philharmonic does not have the technical finesse and rich sonority of, say, its friendly upstate rival, the San Francisco Symphony.

Mr. Dudamel's performance of Mahler's First Symphony on opening night was telling. He is a music-making animal but also a gifted and substantive musician. Yet for all its searching moments and driving energy, the Mahler performance was rough-edged, raw and shaky at times.

Mr. Dudamel knows there is work to do.

"I think this is an amazing orchestra," he said in the interview. "We are working now. I don't know how to describe my sound yet, because it is their sound, not my sound. But the musicians are so open, so giving, to a different, a new energy.

"Look, I think in one year we can see."

Whatever risk may have been involved in hiring a music director who is barely older than the conductors participating in the Dudamel Fellowship Program has paid off, and how. All of Mr. Dudamel's programs this season are sold out.

In comparison with Mr. Dudamel, a rock star, Mr. Gilbert seems almost a mature maestro. Yet after Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel, two much older, authoritarian music directors, the youthful Mr. Gilbert represents a needed generational overhaul.

Musically he is off to an encouraging start. In a recent column in The New Yorker the critic Alex Ross said the Philharmonic "is playing better than it has in the 17 years that I've been a critic in New York." And Allan Kozinn, my colleague at The New York Times, wrote, "Mr. Gilbert is transforming the icy glare of the Maazel sound into a warm glow."

In his modest way Mr. Gilbert has it in him to be an influential educator and proselytizer. His spoken introductions to new or unfamiliar works, like Schoenberg's lush symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande," complete with musical excerpts played by the orchestra, have been lucid and helpful. I was impressed that for his opening concert he emboldened Renée Fleming to take a chance and perform an early Messiaen work, "Poèmes Pour Mi." It worked. Ms. Fleming sang this 30-minute score from memory with total involvement and radiant sound.

What's more, the Philharmonic has a composer in residence again, Magnus Lindberg, though you can understand the complaints of some East Coast composers; while Mr. Dudamel, a Venezuelan, appointed an American, Mr. Adams, to a comparable post in Los Angeles, Mr. Gilbert, a New York native, chose a Finn.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, Mr. Gilbert has been cautious so far about taking interpretive chances. His account of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," though crisp, inexorable and brilliantly played, was missing some madness. But give him time.

In Boston, meanwhile, the major project Mr. Levine has lined up for audiences this season is routine by comparison: a survey of the Beethoven symphonies. The performances were to be recorded for release as a complete set of the symphonies, Mr. Levine's first. The orchestra has now announced that Mr. Levine's recuperation from surgery will compel him to cede more than half of the cycle to other conductors. As of now he will conduct only the Sixth through Ninth Symphonies. (He will conduct the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies when the Boston Symphony comes to Carnegie Hall on Nov. 2.)

Things started out splendidly for Mr. Levine in Boston. Mr. Ozawa was a notoriously uncreative programmer, so the orchestra's artistic administrators were delighted when Mr. Levine reported for duty with enough ideas for five seasons. Though I lack the perspective of those who hear the Boston Symphony week to week, the orchestra sounds great on his watch. Still, these days his imagination seems lacking.

He has long had an intense interest in highly complex contemporary music: scores by composers like Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter, that he had had few opportunities to explore during the decades when he was focused mostly on opera.

For two full seasons he immersed the Boston Symphony and its audiences in an extensive celebration of the 100th birthday of Mr. Carter, which came in December. That a major composer was still producing important scores at such an advanced age was unprecedented in music history, Mr. Levine said in touting the Carter project. But this worthy endeavor soaked up a lot of the creative juices of the orchestra and its audience. Diverse younger composers who should be heard in Boston have been overlooked so far.

Mr. Levine now holds two of the most important musical jobs in America. Though they are in the same time zone, the workload would test any conductor. When he accepted the Boston post, it seemed that he might drift slowly away from the Met, concentrate on the symphony and try to build a legacy with this historic orchestra to match his transformational tenure at the Met. Now I am not sure.

During curtain call for the Met's opening-night gala last month, a convoluted new production of "Tosca" by the modernist director Luc Bondy, Mr. Levine seemed miffed as the production team was booed. With the determined general manager Peter Gelb in place, Mr. Levine will have to assert himself more forcefully to shape the overall artistic direction at the Met. And if his health problems continue, he may have to make career choices.
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